I don't want the love of the nation; it's unhygienic," sniffs Kenneth Williams (Adam Godley) late in "Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick," the new Terry Johnson play that the author has directed in as bracing and comically cleansing a production as the National Theater has seen all year. If the play is by no means the equal of the staging now showcasing it, that's largely forgivable, given a cast who turn potential caricatures into figures of real wit and feeling. Indeed, one could argue that a top-rank cast dignifies lives that aren't necessarily worthy of the requiem that the play becomes. And yet whether you care or even know about the ever-so-English Carry On films that provide the play's milieu, the treasurable acting is more than worth carrying on about.

I don’t want the love of the nation; it’s unhygienic,” sniffs Kenneth Williams (Adam Godley) late in “Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick,” the new Terry Johnson play that the author has directed in as bracing and comically cleansing a production as the National Theater has seen all year. If the play is by no means the equal of the staging now showcasing it, that’s largely forgivable, given a cast who turn potential caricatures into figures of real wit and feeling. Indeed, one could argue that a top-rank cast dignifies lives that aren’t necessarily worthy of the requiem that the play becomes. And yet whether you care or even know about the ever-so-English Carry On films that provide the play’s milieu, the treasurable acting is more than worth carrying on about.

Johnson has been down this path before, in a superior play, “Dead Funny,” about a community of hapless Londoners whose obsession with Britain’s great dead comedians couldn’t disguise their own sterile, unfunny lives. This time, Johnson shifts the focus to the Carry On players themselves — his title derives from four of their movies, starting with “Carry On Cleo” in 1964 — who made 31 films at Pinewood Studios between 1958 and 1978. (A 1992 attempt to resuscitate the genre with “Carry On Columbus” quickly collapsed.)

It will come as no surprise to hear that these purveyors of comic glee comprised so many sad, wayward souls: Sid James (played by Geoffrey Hutchings) was the resident womanizer, a legendary lecher and drunk who hid his Jewish-South African past behind that celebrated smutty laugh and battered looks.

Kenneth Williams (Godley) cut a more patrician figure, notwithstanding working class origins that uneasily accommodated his flared-nostril comic finesse and didn’t know what to make of his homosexuality. Williams died of an overdose in 1988, though “Cleo, Camping” stops instead at that marginally more auspicious time when he’s dipping an ambivalent toe into his “little pond of celebrity.”

Still very much alive is the play’s third pivot, Barbara Windsor (Samantha Spiro), whose dalliances in the East End criminal underworld didn’t prevent her from being one of Sid James’ assignations — indeed, arguably the only of his many conquests whom James truly loved. (The two were 24 years apart in age.) Nowadays a national treasure due to her apparently ample heart (and no less ample chest), “Cleo, Camping” presents a young, vivacious Barbara seeking to be more than just a joke, even if her country insists on reducing her to the living embodiment of a tits-and-bum seaside postcard.

Buffs may wonder what happened to Joan Sims, Charles Hawtrey and Frankie Howerd, Carry On veterans who barely rate a mention. Instead, Johnson has constructed a situation worthy of one of the films themselves (in William Dudley’s delicious set, the location is a trailer only mildly less tipsy than its thespian inhabitants), while always reminding us of the pain and grief that fueled the lavatorial or sexual hi-jinks.

Will the politically correct brigade be offended? No doubt they will, though such a response is as irrelevant as asking the “Carry On” films to aspire to Noel Coward-style elegance when their fundamental impulse was always down and dirty.

The play’s eventual problem is one of tone, insofar as Johnson seems to be asking us to weep for something that we’re simultaneously told isn’t really worth our tears. As a result, the writing is clunkiest when most thematically explicit: “You don’t want me; it’s the idea of me you want,” Barbara tells Sid, even if that hardly sounds the kind of remark to come rolling off the character’s cheerful, clearly well-lubricated tongue. Later, it’s difficult to summon much grief at Kenneth’s realization that he is now a has-been, since the play seems of two minds anyway about the durability of the Carry On legacy.

That said, the exemplary cast make something far richer of these players than the characters whom the Carry On folk themselves ended up playing over (in Kenneth Williams’ case) 25 films. A sprightly voiced blonde, Spiro emerges as a surprisingly delicate Barbara far from the expected vulgarian that she might have become in lesser hands. While it’s hard to imagine her spouting psychobabble like “the me that’s me, the me I recognize,” it’s easy to see her as the resident confidante whom Kenneth trusts enough after some 15 years’ acquaintanceship to ask to inspect his rear end.

Stepping in for Antony Sher, who dropped out over creative disagreements with Johnson, Hutchings can’t resist the occasional actor-ish indulgence, but he does as well by the French farce-leanings of the script as by the crueler truths of a man who has his own “bum troubles” to match those of Kenneth. But it is Godley’s simply priceless turn as the self-loathing Kenneth that lifts the play beyond a clever, sometimes mawkish caprice.

“We’re going to sink without a trace,” he cautions his colleagues and friends , his periodic bouts of flashing co-existing uneasily with a feigned snobbery. Not if this performance is any gauge. Folded into a lament for a brand of British humor almost totally devoid of irony is the altogether welcome irony of the staging itself, which is to put center-stage a self-acknowledged relic played by a rising young talent who here announces himself as a star.

Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick

(COMEDY-DRAMA; ROYAL NATIONAL THEATER: LYTTELTON; 898 SEATS; $:L27 ($ 45) TOP)

Production

LONDON A Royal National Theater presentation of a play in two acts, written and directed by Terry Johnson.

Crew

Sets, William Dudley; costumes, Nettie Edwards; lighting, Simon Corder; music, Barrington Pheloung; sound, Adam Rudd. Opened Sept. 21,1998; reviewed Sept. 19 (mat.) Running time: 2 HRS., 40 MIN.

With

Sid ..... Geoffrey Hutchings Sally ..... Jacqueline Defferary Kenneth ..... Adam Godley Imogen ..... Gina Bellman Barbara ..... Samantha Spiro Eddie ..... Kenneth MacDonald

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