Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Richard Harris: The Last Laugh

By | Published on Sunday 6 November 2022

Beginning a run this week is the first in-house production from the Tabard Theatre following its recent relaunch.

‘The Last Laugh’ is based on a Japanese play by Kōki Mitani, and is by veteran screen and script writer Richard Harris. 

The play was first performed back in 2007, and it’s great to see it returning to the stage this year. To find out more about the play, the production, and the creatives behind it, I spoke to Richard Harris ahead of opening night. 

CM: Can you start by telling us about the narrative of ‘The Last Laugh’? What story does the play tell?
RH: The original play is set in Japan. My version of it is set at an unspecified time in an unspecified country at war and under an increasingly authoritarian rule that recently has come to include theatre censorship. 

A young and somewhat naively idealistic writer, who is a founder member of a fringe theatre company specialising in comedy, has written a new play.

He is having his first meeting with the recently appointed censor who turns out to be a career soldier who not only has absolutely no sense of humour but has never been to a theatre.

As a result, the writer finds himself not only trying to justify the need for humour and laughter at a time as dark as this, but also trying to explain the mechanics of humour, to answer the question of “why is that funny and why aren’t you in the army?” 

The narrative, if you like, is how their relationship changes as they each come to learn and understand a little bit more about the other. But will the play ever be performed?

CM: What themes are explored through the play?
RH: As I’ve said, the need for comedy, the value of comedy, particularly in bad times – and its unplanned resonances with what is happening today.

The mechanics of comedy that, while being explained by the writer are also being demonstrated by our actors. And if you push the resonances… be careful what you joke about…

CM: Can you tell us about the play it’s based on and about its creator Kōki Mitani?
RH: The original play was called ‘Warai No Daigaku’ and was written by Kōki Mitani, a very successful and popular writer and director of plays and films in Japan. He and I have never met. 

I worked from a literal translation of the play and Mr Mitani gave me free rein to make whatever changes I wanted.

He has very generously written of my adaptation: “What was a refreshing surprise for me was that the changes and additions Mr Harris made have added to the depth and multilayering of the drama”.

CM: What made you want to do this adaptation?
RH: The producer Bill Kenwright gave me the literal translation of the play and asked if I would like to adapt it. I read it and said yes.

CM: Is the play exactly the same as when it was first staged back in 2007?
RH: I have made some additions and amendments but the play is substantially as first performed.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the creative team working on this production?
RH: The play is a two hander – in comedy terms, a double act.

I’m very happy to have David Tarkenter and Matt Wake so skilfully batting my lines to and fro and to have director Nick Bromley making sure they don’t bump into the furniture.

I’d also like to pay special mention to Simon and Sarah Reilly who have recently taken over the Tabard and who do pretty much everything – and on a very tight budget. They love this little theatre, as do I.

I hope they get all the support they deserve.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about yourself? What drew you to a career in the arts? How did your career begin?
RH: I fell in love with an actress and wrote a play to impress her. She sent it to a producer and he bought it. That was in 1959. I’ve been at it ever since.

CM: What have been the highlights of your career thus far?
RH: If you mean in terms of success, I suppose it would be ‘Stepping Out’ and ‘Outside Edge’ in the theatre, and ‘A Touch of Frost’, ‘Shoestring’ and ‘Outside Edge’ on television.

But generally, I think that success is a word you only apply to other people. I don’t know too many writers who are pleased with themselves. Not with Mr Kipling’s two impostors looking over your shoulder all the time.

CM: What aims and hopes do you have for the future?
RH: At my age, my aim is unsteady and my hope is to wake up in the morning.

‘The Last Laugh’ is on at The Tabard Theatre from 9 Nov-3 Dec. For more information and to book tickets head to the venue website here.