” an homage to the original writers and a celebration of a particular brand of humour that has sadly all but passed away”
From the moment we hear the voice of the former music hall star, Bud Flanagan, crooning the famous theme tune for “Dad’s Army” through the speakers, we are wrapped in a blanket of fond nostalgia which keeps us warm for the ensuing ninety minutes. We think we are in for an unsurprising, almost gentle, recap of the BBC television sitcom about the British Home Guard during the Second World War; yet we are immediately caught off guard by the impressive skill of impersonation. David Benson and Jack Lane, between them, take on all the characters with near perfection.
Set in a fictional seaside town on the south coast of England, the stories revolve around a mixed bag of local volunteers otherwise ineligible for military service, either by being in professions exempt from conscription or because of age (hence the name ‘Dad’s Army’). “Dad’s Army Radio Show” relives three classic episodes; ‘Round and Round Went the Great Big Wheel’, ‘Mum’s Army’ and ‘The Deadly Attachment’, eschewing visual props and set, recreating the atmosphere of a radio broadcast that ultimately relies purely on the script and the voice. A tall order, maybe, but this two-man army conquer the task with masterful ease.
The pair seamlessly bounce between the characters as fast as the humour switches from subtle to slapstick, enjoying every minute and relishing the crackle of catchphrases that have become part of popular culture. They don’t look the part but as soon as Lane utters the clipped vowels of Captain Mainwaring you can close your eyes and picture Arthur Lowe on a grainy black and white television screen. Only, don’t close your eyes! Otherwise you will miss the meticulous mannerisms. Benson’s Sergeant Wilson comes complete with the shy half-smile and self-conscious forehead-patting we loved John Le Mesurier for. Blink and he has morphed into the dour, Scottish Private Frazer or black-market spiv Private Walker; while Lane ricochets between the old but hilariously fastidious Lance Corporal Jones and the young, mother’s boy Private Pike.
Aided by Tom Lishman’s evocatively period sound design, this is not merely an exercise in mimicry. It is an homage to the original writers and a celebration of a particular brand of humour that has sadly all but passed away. It is not laugh-out loud, nor sensational, yet it still bites beneath its soft pelt. It pokes fun at our very Englishness, but the real target is outside aggression, to which it stands up, and fights.
The original television series was expected to have had limited appeal, and all involved were surprised at the popularity of the show, later reflected in the frequency of the repeats over five decades. Similarly, “Dad’s Army Radio Show” reaches beyond the limits of an audience wanting merely to relive the moment. The winning charm of Benson and Lane, that equals that of the mellow yet bitingly ironic original material, not only ensures that this show will stand the test of time and invite repeat viewing, but will persuade us, familiar with it or not, to revisit the original.
“wonderfully witty, packed with mischievous gags that appeal right across the generations”
Built in 1873 as an answer to South London’s Crystal Palace, Alexandra Palace burnt to the ground just sixteen days after its opening. Two years later it was reconstructed as a kind of pleasure dome, with palm court, circus, concert hall with its own park land and railway station. Hidden at its heart was the spectacular theatre, that rivalled many in the West End with its size and ambition. Welcoming stars like Dame Ellen Terry, Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin.
A home for opera, dance, ballet, music hall, theatre and pantomime it entertained thousands in its heyday but eventually struggled to compete and, for eighty years, has been closed to the public, a hidden gem perched high above the city. Until now. Following a multi-million-pound refurbishment, the abandoned theatre is unveiled in all its former glory. The auditorium, resembling a forgotten and crumbling Roman temple, is vast but feels intimate at the same time. Reflecting its former use, the programming embraces a variety of stand-up comedy, classical recitals, jazz music; but the first big stage show is “Horrible Histories: Horrible Christmas”.
Birmingham Stage Company has been bringing Horrible Histories to life on the stage for ten horrible years now, and this latest version, in association with Derby Theatre, retains the anarchic mayhem that has become their trademark, while still managing to impart a little bit of knowledge onto its young and older, though not necessarily wiser, audience.
When Christmas comes under threat from a vengeful Santa imposter out to ruin Christmas, it is up to one young boy to save the day. A tight-knit troupe of eight actors take us on a whirlwind trip through Christmases past and present. Watson, the intrepid young hero, played with wide-eyed gusto by Tom Cawte, joins forces with ‘Shirley’ Holmes (Erika Poole) in a race to save Christmas. Speeding back through the centuries on Holmes’ time-travelling scooter, they join forces with Charles Dickens, King Charles, Henry VIII, St Nicholas (the bishop of Myra, in Turkey) and Oliver Cromwell, among others. Completely absurd yet informative, it perfectly mixes humour into its incisive, laconic low-down on the background of Christmas Day.
Terry Deary’s script (adapted from his own original publications) is wonderfully witty, packed with mischievous gags that appeal right across the generations. Never patronising, nor descending into superfluous slapstick, it satisfies the senses of the kids in all of us. Ally Pally’s auditorium is quite cavernous, but the talented multi-rolling cast create a warm glow that easily reaches the upper balconies.
Chris Gunter as Sydney Clause, the Grinch-like antagonist, and Ashley Bowden as his shambling side-kick, Rudolph, are a cracking comedy duo. Gunter’s sinister caricature of the ‘Bad Santa’ has shades of Tim Burton, with as many dimensions too; so that ultimately his performance transcends mere ‘panto’ and, like the show itself, is ultimately quite moving. In the meantime, Neal Foster, leads us through the Yuletide backstory shifting with ease between many characters with impressive versatility.
By giving us a potted history of Christmas the cast dig to the core of what Christmas should really be about. This horribly hilarious show is a real celebration of Christmas.