Stanley, a Man of Variety review: Timothy Spall's one-man pet project is a very strange beast
Dir: Stephen Cookson; Starring: Timothy Spall. 15 cert, 83 mins.
Like a hamster that won’t fetch the newspaper, Stanley, a Man of Variety is a pet project that has been raised as the wrong kind of pet.
Devised by Timothy Spall with the writer and director Stephen Cookson, it is a macabre black comedy about a psychiatric patient mouldering away in a half-abandoned institution, who is beset by visions of his favourite comic actors of yesteryear, from Tony Hancock to Alastair Sim and Margaret Rutherford.
All of the parts are played by Spall, whose impersonations are fully inhabited and thrillingly accurate. It is like A Christmas Carol by way of a League of Gentlemen sketch – or perhaps something dreamt up by Ken Campbell, that great shoestring experimentalist of English theatre. (Spall himself has said he was aiming for a cross between Kind Hearts and Coronets and Eraserhead.)
And beyond the showcase of impressions, there is the germ of something worthwhile in that: if the premise was to be reworked into a one-man stage show, it could be very good.
Not as a film, though – or not this film, at least. In an attempt to ramp up the mania, Cookson has layered on all kinds of laptop-grade effects, draining the colour from sections of the screen, distorting characters’ voices, staging a computer-generated hot air balloon ride, and cutting between shots in a choppy panic.
Spall’s performance regularly gets lost in the muddle, as does the plot, which gives Stanley a Memento-style tragic secret, but fails to stir up much mystery around it. For such a slight production it feels desperately stodgy and effortful: lots of variety, perhaps, but little spice of life.