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Storyline (warning: spoilers)
The central character is never given a real name, referred to only as the self-appointed nickname “Funny Cow” or, indeed, much worse as she soon finds out when she ventures up on a comedy stage that has only ever welcomed men and where women are stuck into two categories: singer or stripper. “They’ll be on you like a pack of wolves,” warns world-weary veteran comic Lenny when she wants to follow in his footsteps.
Setting a film in the world of horrendously outdated, “how was that ever acceptable?” jokes that made the likes of Bernard Manning a household name is a tricky prospect as it runs the risk of coming off as if it endorses rather than critiques what we see being joked about in the stage sequences.
Its intentions end up feeling like a noble examination of accepted comedic norms gone by rather than any sort of celebration. Nevertheless watching Funny Cow get down in the comedic dirt for cheap hits from a belly-laughing audience makes for uncomfortable viewing.
Peake’s layered, all-or-nothing performance is undoubtedly the glue that holds this film together, embodying with affecting nuance the sadness underneath that bawdy, larger-than-life armour that she uses to survive – her performance works hand-in-hand with director Adrian Shergold’s authentic recreation of the era.
She’s the real reason to seek out what is a disjointed yet distinctive and colourful character study that sends you away with a snapshot of a woman determined to make something of herself and uneasy about the kind of path she chose. One very wrenching moment is when Aki (who works behind a one-way mirror in a strip club) persuades her favourite client, Mr. 4, to meet in a private room where they can talk, not realizing the young man is mute. No matter: her intuition and sensitivity connect with his pain.