The play follows the tormented life of Lenny Bruce up until his death in 1966 caused by a morphine overdose at the age of 40. Lenny Bruce was a controversial comedian of the sixties who was forever breaking the obscenity laws and thus finding himself up against criminal charges. He tried to break down prejudices and fought censorship using his unique humour, but this brought him into head to head clashes with the establishment.
I have to say that I found the play a little disappointing. It does not go deep enough into the life of Lenny for us to develop some understanding as to why he felt it necessary to continue with his controversial act, knowing he would be arrested. The play doesn't give us any real insight into the man.
The play flicks from the courtroom where Lenny is defending himself against one of the obscenity charges, to the clubs where Lenny does his act. And it is here that Eddie Izzard is able to use all his experience as a stand-up comedian to produce some funny moments. Eddie also demonstrates what a fine actor he is with a convincing and solid performance.
The play has received luke-warm responses from the popular press: BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE of the TIMES says, "If I had been asked beforehand if the British comedian had the range to be plausibly shattered, demented, distraught. I'd have said, probably not. Now I know he is a better actor than I dared hope." NICHOLAS DE JONGH of THE EVENING STANDARD says, "More than 30 years on Izzard makes Bruce's ancient jokes seem vigorously young." JOHN PETER of the SUNDAY TIMES says, "There are only a few thrilling moments in the show." DOMINIC CAVENDISH of TIME OUT says the play has "a dramatic structure that's as stultifying as the FBI was to Bruce". THE DAILY MAIL says, "The brute fact is that Peter Hall's pretentious production - lots of mirrors, lots of half-masks - will be remembered only for a nude, simulated copulation scene between Eddie, rather alarming and flabby with his kit off, and Elizabeth Berkley. " PETRER HEPPLE of THE STAGE says, "Eddie Izzard, who plays Bruce, has many of his improvisatory skills. Unlike Bruce, however, he has a good measure of charm - a fact that mitigates against an entirely convincing impersonation." THE FINANCIAL TIMES says, "The evening is carried by Izzard. His energy flows with extraordinary ease; the buoyancy of his spirit and the force of his commitment propel the whole show." THE INDEPENDENT says, "A none-too-nifty juggling act with jazz band, a battery of back-projections and a multiple role-playing cast, Peter Hall's production makes the play feel simultaneously sketchy and overcrowded."
Lasting two and half-hours I found the play rather average, only being saved by the performance of Eddie Izzard.
Note that there is a lot of nudity and scenes that some people may find offensive. I must admit I found seeing Eddie Izzard naked a little offensive!
I have to be honest here and state openly that I only went to see Lenny at the Queen's Theatre because the leading man just happened to be the wonderful Mr Eddie Izzard, though I have to say I was not the only die hard Eddie fan in the audience! I suspect that many will have gone knowing as little about the American comic Lenny Bruce as I did, though this made no difference to the level of enjoyment throughout the evening.
The play opens with the final scene of Lenny's life, death by morphine overdose at the age of forty, and traces his career from the clubs where he was booked for his impressions rather than his comedy, through his days as MC for various strip joints to the peak of his fame when he became the most notorious comic in America, known for his irreverent and often obscene observations on life. Lenny's way of approaching the themes of his comedy, from racial bigotry to the wealth of the Church, still leaves an audience feeling uncomfortable even today and yet this was part of his regular act 30 years ago! He fully deserves the title as the father of all stand-up comedy and having one of our best of comedians in the form of Eddie Izzard playing the role now is really rather inspired!
The story of his life is actually made more hard hitting because the Lenny Bruce philosophy was really so honest. He took the risk and broke all the rules by holding up a mirror to the things society would rather just accept and get on with, he laid himself bare to attack from the courtroom, his audience and even the government (he was refused entry to Britain because he was considered too subversive). His career in the clubs was regularly interrupted by the unscheduled appearance of local police officers dragging him off the stage for breaking the obscenity laws, yet again!
It really is hard to think of any other actor in this role having seen Eddie Izzard play it so well. I would imagine other actors would have had difficulty in playing the stand-up scenes, with the emphasis on timing and the ability to 'read' the audience and ad lib if need be, whereas Eddie plays the club scenes and narrates with equal ease. Some fans will be able to spot the moments when Lenny becomes Eddie during the stand-up scenes but this only goes to prove that this style of humour is alive and well and still pushing the boundaries of accepted thinking.