A Summer in the Park - Tony Allen

Review by Mark Thomas - New Statesman

For young comedians of the 1980s, Tony Allen was the "guvnor". He was one of the Comedy Store's first comperes, and once declared from the stage: "Lenny Bruce finished his career skint, off his face on drugs and dying in a toilet. And that's how I'm starting mine." His performances were always erratic. Coming on stage at 8pm, he might be inspired, challenging and full of improvisational wit. On the same night, at midnight, he might be self-indulgent, obtuse and wilfully destructive. Sometimes he managed to combine all these attributes in a single performance.

Tony Allen brought a blast of genuine counter-culture to the comedy scene. Few others would have had the nerve to create the "Can't Pray! Won't Pray!" campaign, which involved Allen and his mates heckling evangelical ministers such as Morris Cerullo as they preached at big stadiums. "The art," Allen recalled, "was to have three different people heckling, on three different intellectual levels, at the same time." In quick succession, the preacher would face, from one part of the audience, "Empirically prove there is a God!"; from another, "What's in it for me?"; and from a third, "Who's your fucking tailor?" Sometimes Allen and his mates would arrive at a healing ceremony walking with crutches, which they would later fling in the air, declaring themselves cured.

For Allen, every event, meeting or show was a chance to join in. He once heckled a hapless cabaret critic who decided to try his hand at stand-up. In a club packed with comics glad of the opportunity to abuse a critic, it was Allen's line that cut the deepest. During a moment of calm, he gleefully advised: "Give up the day job!"

If anyone was going to get an arts grant for heckling, it was going to be Tony Allen - and that is precisely what he did. The London Arts Board paid him £300 a week for six weeks to be an "advocate heckler" at Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park. A Summer in the Park is his account of that time. Allen records his attempts to engage with the crowds (or lack of them) and his quest for the "ultimate spontaneous discourse", in which performance, oratory and crowd contribution result in some sort of truth. He skilfully weaves his fellow orators, hecklers and park characters into the story, embracing their oddities and often "borderline" behaviour. The result is a loving, if caustic, portrait of Speakers' Corner and its culture. Occasionally, Allen mentions the history of the place, but his real concern is the current crop of humans who inhabit it.

As ever with Allen, the heckling is what matters most. Of a religious speaker berating the crowd for sinning, he gently inquires: "Was it very bad? What you did?", then quietly leaves to set up his own pitch with a sign reading: "Tony Allen: advocate heckler, anarchist parasite, mixed-ability shaman". In his speeches and debates, he combines old routines with new riffs and ad libbing, and gets as much joy out of the crowd besting him as he does out of besting it. There are also moments of genuine compassion, as when Allen tries to work out what to say to a squaddie who is about to go AWOL after hearing him speak about the dangers of work.

In his introduction, Ken Campbell suggests that we should place A Summer in the Park alongside Keith Johnstone's classic text for performers, Impro. He may well be right. But although Allen's descriptions of his own performances are painfully honest, his sense of fun and mischief make A Summer in the Park much more than a guide for performers. This is a unique book about a unique place by a frequently brilliant artist.

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