The “onion at the end” is a phrase from the days of Variety.  It means the song or story or recitation or whatever else you might put in near the end of your act to bring a tear to the eye of your audience.

It is the early 1930s.  The Great Depression still has the country in its grip.  Two entertainers, BOB, a comic, and JIMMY, a song and dance man, who share the same dressing room but otherwise have little in common, recently came to the end of a run of the pantomime “Sinbad the Sailor” at the Argyll Theatre, Birkenhead.  But neither had work for the summer.  On a tip off from DILLY, one of the showgirls, they decided to team up as a comedy double act to get the one job available at the Winter Gardens in Southport, Lancashire, in a summer show called “Follies of Parade”.

At Southport, where the play begins, they find theatrical digs with ROSE and her young son TEDDY.  Teddy is the product of an affair Rose had with a nationally known crooner when she herself was a showgirl and her house was partly bought with hush money, paid to Rose by the married singing star to keep their affair and Teddy’s birth secret.  Teddy has consequently never met his father.  Yet he seems cheerful enough despite what seems to be an underlying illness, is a ‘wizard’ with electronics and is intent on becoming a stage manager. 

Unfortunately, Jimmy and Bob, or First & Last as they decide to call themselves, do not get off to a very successful start.  Tensions between them have lead to a lack of teamwork.  The theatre owner, DAN, a Liverpudlian ex-comic who does not suffer fools or comics gladly, is consequently not best pleased with either their routines or the onion at the end of their act, and to improve the show – which he has also produced – gives them the option of getting their cards or spending their time together offstage speaking in rhyme – which he thinks will improve their timing onstage. Extraordinarily enough, this central element of the play is based on a true story.

With work at a premium and dole queues everywhere, Jimmy and Bob have no choice but to comply.  At first they are absolutely hopeless at rhyming but as the story proceeds through its various vicissitudes with Teddy and Rose (who begins an affair with Bob) and Dan and Dilly (who are themselves having an affair) their rhyming gets better and better and their act consequently improves out of all recognition.  At the same time Teddy’s health declines and it becomes gradually apparent that he has a terminal illness. 

At the end of the play, Dan, proud of his coaching methods, sends for the comedy duo to stand in for an injured top-of-the-bill comic in a BBC outside broadcast variety bill from one of his other theatres in Liverpool.  But it is at the time when Teddy is slipping away and has asked them, as what is clearly a ‘last request’, to rhyme for him.  However, they will miss their train, the vital run though and their spot at the top of the bill if they do.  Bob is torn but eventually leaves with Dilly to make the broadcast on his own; but even in the knowledge that he will miss out on his one opportunity to make the big-time, Jimmy stays with Rose to give Teddy comfort in rhyme.

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