” 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.
“this endlessly inventive production delights in bewitching us at every turn”
To arrive at Wilton’s on a dark winter’s night is to open a veritable box of delights even before the performance begins. There is something magical about making your way there; about the lights streaming from the windows of this shabby-genteel 19th century frontage in an otherwise sparsely-lit patch of East London. Stepping inside is like stepping into an alternative reality; a feeling compounded yesterday evening by the delicious, festive smell of Christmas spices. All this served as the perfect introduction to Piers Torday’s theatrical adaption of John Masefield’s classic children’s book, The Box of Delights.
The book, written in 1935, tells the story of Kay Harker – orphaned in a fire six years prior to the action – and his extremely adventurous few days staying with his guardian and two other children in the run up to Christmas. In time-honoured Edwardian fashion, the three children are left alone and have to foil the Machiavellian machinations of some dangerous adults and save the day. This time, dark magic is on the loose, and nothing less than the future of Christmas itself is at stake. To add to the fun, Masefield also sprinkles the book with references to some of the zeitgeisty thrills of the thirties – a gang of jewel thieves, machine guns and jazz.
As evidenced by the extraordinary success of the Harry Potter stories, magic has not lost its power to entrance, and this endlessly inventive production delights in bewitching us at every turn. Tom Piper’s production design is terrific, and the lighting (Anna Watson), video (Nina Dunn) and sound (Ed Lewis) work together in perfect harmony to immerse us in the story’s captivating blend of wonder, menace and Christmas cheer. So much of this production’s success depends on the element of surprise, that too much description would be detrimental to its power to entertain, but suffice it to say that some of the show’s most memorable moments involve Samuel Wyer’s marvellous puppet design. The puppets are fabulous in themselves, and are brought to life by the cast in some unexpected ways throughout the evening. Special mention must go here to Molly Roberts’ wonderful skill in bringing Cole Hawlings’ frisky terrier so perfectly to life.
The eight-strong cast perform with brio throughout, and drive the play forward with a tremendous amount of appeal and energy, which helps to cover the occasional moments in which the script loses pace. Theo Ancient’s Kay, though occasionally over-earnest, is a likeable lad, and Samuel Simmonds is splendid as the sweet but slightly swotty Peter. Sara Stewart excels in the double role of Pouncer and Caroline Louisa – alternately oozing evil sex appeal and emanating slightly dotty charm – and Nigel Betts’ truly frightening Abner Brown provides the drama with a necessary dose of tangible menace.
The production is very much one of two halves, with the post-interval half substantially less wondrous and frightening than the first, and with many more nods to panto. This shift in balance seems rather a shame, and also somewhat takes away from the impact of the play’s denouement, but this is a small quibble. Overall, Justin Audibert (director) and his talented team have created a shimmering enchantment of a show, perfect for a Christmas treat.