Hancock’s Finest Hour – Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds

It’s an inspired piece of casting. Cast a son of Birmingham who made his name playing a much loved TV character in the 70s and 80s to play an equally loved Birmingham born TV comic and actor of the 50s and 60s.

Paul Henry may have become a household name playing Benny in Crossroads (the original, not the Jane Asher remake) but in Hancock’s Finest Hour takes on the mantle of Tony Hancock. It turns out to be perfect casting; while the programme notes state this show is a tribute and not an impersonation, the likeness is remarkable.

Colin Bennett’s production takes place in a dressing room before and after Hancock took part in a BBC TV interview with former MP John Freeman. Freeman pushed Hancock to examine his life, not perhaps a comfortable move for such a troubled artist.

Using a series of flashbacks to pivotal moments in Hancock’s life we get an insight into some of the contributing factors to his tragically early death. David Matthews and Clare Bloomer play a plethora of roles from Hancock’s work and personal life.

Henry’s performance is riveting; he sheds of any image of his TV alter ego and totally inhabits the role of this undoubtedly comic genius who was also a deeply flawed man.

This is the first stop on a National tour and the couple of wobbles on show should soon be ironed out as the cast settle into the runs. Some of the transitions between the supporting characters need more definition to differentiate and the device of using his voices of reason doesn’t quite hit the mark. These however a minor niggles in an otherwise splendid production. Its just a shame that so many empty seats where in evidence at the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds. Those that stayed away or unfathomably left during the interval missed one of the strongest stage performances of the year.

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