It will be Norman Wisdom’s very own suit Jack Lane will wear as he takes to the stage in Wisdom of a Fool at Horsham’s Capitol on September 17.
The suit has been provided by Norman’s son Nick who runs Wisdom Sports in Haywards Heath –all part of Jack’s commemoration of what would have been Norman’s centenary year.
Jack’s tribute takes the form of the first-ever play based on the comic actor’s early life and career, a moving and funny one-man play in which Jack will take you behind Norman’s well-known cheeky character to reveal the tough and lonely childhood that spurred him on to a better life.
While serving in the army, Wisdom discovered a passion for comedy and began to perfect an act that would go on to shape his unique style. The world of post-war music hall and variety embraced Norman’s manic slapstick routine, catapulting him to stardom in the early 1950s. Success on the silver screen, including the hit song ‘Don’t Laugh at Me’, sealed his fame. But as the play makes clear, fame comes at a price...
“When Norman passed away in 2010, I made a promise that one day I’d tell his story on stage. It’s one of self-belief, courage and an incredible work ethic.
“When I was growing up I used to watch the Carry On films, and my mum said to me ‘Have you seen the Norman Wisdom films?’ I said I hadn’t, and I was introduced to the films. I just loved them. I loved the silliness. As a child, you always love adults being silly.
“But as you grow older, you start to appreciate things in different ways. The films were like a nostalgic time capsule of the 1950s. I started getting interested in his life and trying to find out what I could about him.”
As Jack says, there have been plays about Morecambe & Wise and about Tommy Cooper, but not so far about Norman Wisdom: “I couldn’t understand why because he had the most interesting background of all of them. He and his brother were with an abusive father. The mother left because she couldn’t live with the father anymore, and the dad got custody. I don’t know why he did. Maybe it was because she had met somebody else. But the father was awful. He was a terrible guy.”
The only tale Norman used to tell about him was his father throwing him up in the air until his head hit the ceiling.
“Otherwise, Norman didn’t go on about memories of his dad. It was something he didn’t want to keep digging into. It was the classic tears of a clown story. He just used to relate this story about his dad throwing him to the ceiling. But you think about how awful it must have been, how sad not to have had any love. That’s why you feel in his films he is just wanting to be loved.”
It’s appropriate the piece receives its first performance in West Sussex: “Wisdom had a lot of very strong links to Sussex. He lived in West Chiltington for many years when he was making a success of himself. I think he just loved the quieter life, which is why he eventually ended up on the Isle of Man.
“And Nick, Norman’s son, has lived in Sussex all his life. When I decided I was going to do the play, I wrote to Nick and said this is what I would like to do. Morally, if you are going to write about the private life of someone’s father or family, then they should now. But I met up with Nick and he was really supportive.”
The result is a fascinating piece: “The lines blur between Norman the man and Norman the film and stage persona.
“Because of his troubled childhood he craved affection, eventually finding it in the guise of a packed auditorium and a sea of laughing faces. Here he had found a safe haven, a place in which he could feel appreciated and more importantly loved. He was an immensely-talented man as can be seen in his films, but it was on stage where he fully displayed his unique gifts.”
“I’ve always had a sense that Norman was driven by a fear of failure, and failure could mean a return to the harsh life that he once knew. It’s that determination and passion that I hope you’ll leave the theatre admiring and that no matter what your background, you can make something of yourself through sheer hard work. If Norman has taught me anything, it’s that.”
“I wanted to focus on the moments which drove him to become the unique performer and man he was. I can’t be Norman but what I can do is hold a mirror up to his career and the personal life that defined him.”
“I have a wonderful musical director in Kenny Clayton. Having worked with Shirley Bassey, Matt Monroe and Petula Clark, to name but a few, he clearly comes with a wealth of experience but more importantly for me, a shared love for Norman.
“We’ve co-written a brand-new song called, ‘I Owe Everything to the Army’ and, of course, the show includes Norman’s signature song ‘Don’t Laugh at Me’, which is an absolute joy to perform.”
Tickets for Wisdom of a Fool (£16.50-£17.50) are available on 01403 750220 or www.thecapitolhorsham.com.
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