Amanda Lawrence has a very versatile face. With her hair upswept, her neck taut and her mouth pursed in a manner that suggest she has just become aware of a rather disagreeable smell in the room, she looks uncannily like Charles Hawtrey, the British actor best remembered for his roles in the Carry On films.
In her one-woman show based on Hawtreys life, Lawrence shows his evolution from an eager child actor to a lonely, bitter and gin-riddled old man who makes passes at cabbies and shouts “fawk off” at anyone foolhardy enough to approach him.
A very private person, Hawtrey attended the Italia Conti School and played a Lost Boy on stage in Peter Pan before his film career took off with the Will Hay movies.
Lawrence shows him to be something of a mothers boy, a prim and keen young man whose once bright career hit a wall when his style and manner were deemed to be out of step with the times and only really bloomed again with the Carry Ons though eventually his alcoholism meant that he was dropped from these too.
At the start of his career he adopted the name of theatrical impresario Sir Charles Hawtrey and sometimes claimed him as his father, though this was not the case. He clearly had a difficult relationship with his own background and yet his relationship with his mother seems to have been one of the most significant in his life. Lawrence poignantly illustrates the mix of frustration, anger and affection he feels for her and shows how her descent into senility foreshadows his own decline.
The production itself is intentionally frantic with Lawrence playing some fifty roles including Sid James and Laurence Olivier. Director Paul Hunter (of Told by an Idiot) moves events along at rapid pace; at one point he stages a conversation between three characters, Hawtrey, his mother and Madame Conti, forcing Lawrence to switch roles for almost every other line of dialogue. This she does by jumping from chair to chair, while donning and removing her round, wire-framed spectacles at an insane rate. Even though Lawrence is skilled enough to make the shift from role to role feel effortless, the direction forces the audience to acknowledge the amount of effort involved; it underlines the one-ness in the one woman show.
Cathy Wrens cluttered set is full of detail, some of which remain unexplained such as the hoarded loo rolls and bedsteads of Hawtreys boozy twilight in Deal. From this detritus, various props are picked up and imaginatively woven into the narrative: a tasselled lamp shade becomes a hat, a shopping trolley doubles as a taxi cab (and, later, Oliviers chauffer-driven car), and a table and a marker pen are used to illustrate an unfortunate incident when an aging, semi-clad Hawtrey had to be plucked from a burning building by a fireman.
Lawrences performance, the sheer skill and energy of it her neatly pinned up hair has all but escaped by the end as a result of the physical demands of the piece cant be faulted. She mimes in perfect time to audio snippets of Hawtreys films and creates a well rounded impression of a complex, difficult and not particularly likeable man. But for all her efforts, Hawtrey remains too big an enigma; his sexuality, his disappointments – fame tasted fleetingly, the shadow of celebrity, Carry On fans still knocking on his door years later – don’t quite mesh into a whole and there’s a patchwork quality to the piece that, while inevitable, is also frustrating.