Stanley, A Man of Variety
It’s always been an attractive spectacle watching an actor perform several roles in one show. Audiences, both niche and mainstream, have enjoyed some cinematic examples in recent years. In Manifesto (originally intended as a multi-screen art installation) Cate Blanchett plays 13 different artists, performing monologues containing their respective manifestos. In Split, James McAvoy plays a man with Dissociative Identity Disorder and portrays 23 different people. Stanley, A Man of Variety, the new surreal drama starring Timothy Spall, sits somewhere between the two: not quite a museum-piece, but not entirely driven by narrative either.
Spall plays the titular protagonist, an inmate of an empty insane asylum who spends his days mopping the floors and watching old comedies. When Stanley realises that the 15th anniversary of his daughter’s death is approaching, he needs to find a way to visit her grave. With the help of 16 other versions of himself, each adopting the persona of a black-and-white comedy star, he finds his escape.
Much of the film feels like a nostalgic fantasy, dreamt up by retirees from their living room armchairs. Stanley’s conversations with these classic comedians serve the plot, but don’t release the kind of meet-your-heroes charm that a film like Midnight in Paris did so well. There’s no desire to learn more about these people after leaving the cinema.
The 16 comics in question – who includes the likes of George Formby, Max Wall and Max Miller (the last one famously parodied by Paul Whitehouse in The Fast Show) – belong to a previous generation. One can recognise in Spall’s portrayals glints of their original acts and sketches, but only because they were once recited by someone’s parents. It feels like an extended inside joke, where, if you get the references, you’re sure to laugh. But to a younger audience member, they’re part of an expired era in comedy – one that’s better forgotten about, or one that functions only as an embarrassing step to a better time.
The multiplicity of Spall’s performance is admirable, but the multi-character gimmick is becoming dry. Even the surrealism of the film – with Ismael Issa’s brilliantly weird and wild imagery – becomes less exhilarating as the audience endures another scene with a dated comedian. Perhaps Stanley, A Man of Variety would’ve fared better in the previous century – but now, it’s already gathering dust.
Stanley, A Man of Variety is released nationwide on 15th June 2018.
Watch the trailer for Stanley, A Man of Variety here: