Marty Feldman features as the world's favourite Jewish vampire in one of my favourite sketches ever, with the punchline, “Oi, have you got troubles,” when the vampire hunter holds up his cross. He was the writer/comedian with the wild hair and staring eyes, the result of a botched operation for Graves’ disease, though they stood him in good stead as the creator of some of the funniest characters ever seen on small or big screen. Think ‘Young’ Frankenstein's hunchbacked henchman Igor in Mel Brooks' movie. Indeed he is sort of undead in Robert Ross’s new biodrama, directed by Feldman’s old mucker and lifelong admirer, Terry Jones. It opens with silent film titles on a screen at the back (in appreciation of Feldman’s appearance in another Mel Brooks film, Silent Movie), announcing ‘three years’ dead’, then two, then six months, each title accompanied by the appearance of a ghostly luminescent skull in a glass case, until Feldman is alive again and not so much kicking as contorting – for he is indeed in Igor mode, complete with hunchback prosthetic.
David Boyle’s frenetic, elastic recreation of Feldman engages with the audience – in my case one-to-one, for he lures me briefly onto the small cramped stage set up as a claustrophobic, Stateside hotel room – be ready to take part if you sit in middle of the front row!
Happily his partner on stage is Rebecca Vaughan as his life partner Lauretta Feldman. The year is 1974, Young Frankenstein is about to be released and Feldman is about to hit the big time in the USA. The couple are playing a waiting game, holed up in the hotel the night before Feldman is due to appear on a prime-time chat show. The warning in the foyer that herbal cigarettes are used in this production is not in vain. The Feldmans chain-smoke their way through the night and Marty drinks his way through it too, while Lauretta leafs through Vogue as her efforts to persuade him to get to sleep prove futile.
So it’s a night of dissecting previous triumphs and disasters and for Lauretta at least, nervously anticipating what might go wrong in front of millions of viewers the next evening.
We learn that Feldman is a womaniser as well as a hard drinker (though we also learn that he knows that home is where the heart is and always goes back to Lauretta); and we are present when he has his fatal heart attack at the tragically young age of 48 in a Mexican hotel room. But I’m not sure that those who don’t already know his work (and love it, for I’m sure to know it is to love it), will pick up the references to his extraordinary back catalogue of radio and TV script writing and appearances – including co-writing Round the Horne on radio and The Army Game and The Frost Report for TV, and writing and appearing in iconic shows, such as At Last the 1948 Show and his own series Marty. But if it makes folk seek out the work then that’s no bad thing – and they can always read playwright Robert Ross’s well-reviewed biography of Feldman, Marty Feldman, The Biography of a Comedy Legend.
Meanwhile there is much to enjoy in the performances of Boyle and Vaughan (he could also tackle Gene Wilder any time he likes, for he’s a dead ringer for Feldman’s co-star in Young Frankenstein), despite their uncomfortable proximity in the confines of the tiny – and herbal smoke-filled – studio theatre.
By Judi Herman
Jeepers Creepers runs until Saturday 20 February, 7pm & 4pm, £20.50-£22.50, at Leicester Square Theatre, 6 Leicester Place, WC2H 7BX; 020 7734 2222. www.leicestersquaretheatre.com