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Peake performance in Funny Cow

Maxine Peake plays northern comic fighting a lifetime of both physical and mental abuse

20 April, 2018 — By Dan Carrier

Paddy Considine and Maxine Peake in Funny Cow

FUNNY COW
Directed by Adrian Shergold
Certificate 12a
☆☆☆☆

THE image of the inner torture of the stand-up comic is a well-worn path for storytellers to tread – and at the heart of this Maxine Peake vehicle is the idea that the human spirit, in the most dire of circumstances, can be lifted up by making others smile.

Set between the immediate post-war years and the 1970s, it paints a very unhappy picture of Britain – casual racism and sexism abound, and the back-to-back terraces where the heroine’s early years are spent leaps from the pages of The Road To Wigan Pier.

Funny Cow, as we know her, (Peake) is the glue that holds this story together.

Peake is tremendous as the northern comic who is fighting a lifetime of both physical and mental abuse – from her father as a child, her first husband, and a society that only wants a woman on the stage if she can knock out a tune or take her clothes off.

Macy Shackleton takes on the role of the young FC and this too is a star turn: she infuriates her father (Stephen Graham) with her spirit and receives vicious blows in return.

The film jumps chronologically and we see her marrying Bob (Tony Pitts) and then suffering the same abuse her mother was subjected to – a vicious bully who she reacts to in the same way she dealt with her father.

She has the mantra you can either laugh or cry, and finds some escape by realising that the violence is the product of an absurd maleness, something deeply sad – and then takes to the stage to tell lurid jokes after watching terrible working men’s club comic Lenny (Alun Armstrong) die a death in front of bored drinkers and decides she could do better.

A side-plot sees FC fall for middle-class wet hanky Angus (Paddy Considine) who owns a bookshop and has a bit of Michael Caine’s Educating Rita don about him – but this relationship too has an odd power play at its heart, though not expressed through fists and raised voices.

What works best about this is the narrative arc does not have a beginning, middle or end. There is no satisfactory conclusion, no moment where she can punch the air, sashay off stage with an adoring public rolling in the aisles – and it feels all the truer for it.

Funny Cow is a tragedy rather than a comedy – it is uplifting with its lead saying she shall overcome, but what awful forces there are here for her to tackle.

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