Not the Messiah The Pleasance

George Telfer must be one of the busiest actors around at the Fringe this year. For not only is he entertaining the public with his revealing one man show as Richard Burton, but just when you’re not looking, he quickly turns into another actor undone by the demon drink – Graham Chapman.

For those not too familiar with the name of Graham Chapman, he was one part of the comedy team that would go onto revolutionise British comedy in the late 60’s: “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”. Chapman passed away after suffering from cancer almost twenty years following Monty Python’s television debut on the BBC. And this show is a telling reminder of his influence and position within British comedy history.

He is perhaps best known for the leading roles in two comic classics from the 70’s that will keep his image very much alive. “Monty Python & The Holy Grail” and “Monty Python’s Life Of Brian”. So George Telfer’s illuminating and often moving account of his life and career is certainly long overdue.

Mr Telfer opens his performance from a hospital ward bed, as Chapman is struggling with his physical decline, all too aware that his life is slowly slipping away. And yet it’s a show not full of doom and gloom, but one full of laughter, as well as examining the strange roads in life that lead you to a destination not originally planned.

From first studying medicine at Cambridge (he had set out to be a doctor, and eventually qualified as one) and then teaming up with gangly fellow student John Cleese, as members of the famed Footlights Company, actor Telfer (as Chapman) begins to evaluate this radical change in his professional direction. Telfer cleverly introduces various characters and voices, as they regularly question Chapman through the course of his life. This might sound all a bit silly, in the best Monty Python tradition, but it works nonetheless.

The actor doesn’t hold back when he eloquently, and with a great degree of dignified pathos, goes into great detail regarding Chapman’s internal struggles. In particular, his gradual awakening to his homosexuality, and his excessive drinking that would eventually lead to full blown alcoholism and set him on a downward spiral that would often infuriate and frustrate his Monty Python chums (Cleese in particular).

Telfer also illustrates that Chapman was perhaps the first high profile show-business personality who “came out” and embraced his gayness, regardless of the obvious risks to his career, and at a time when few in the public eye had the courage, or were prepared to do so. Yet Chapman, it seems, didn’t set out to become a martyr or a figurehead for any particular gay cause or movement. He just wanted to be honest, and to express honesty about himself, and to be honest towards his many friends about his true emotions.

Once again, George Telfer keeps his audience transfixed with an energetic performance, full of laughter, tears, agony, absurdity and elements of self-revelation. And by the play’s end, Telfer has paid a most touching tribute to a writer and comedian who may well have not been messianic in any true sense of the word, but by his own brand of silliness, made him a much loved naughty boy.

Lawrence Lettice