This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com
How bona to vada it’s back! In the mid-1960s, 16 million people would gather around their wireless sets (radios to youngsters) every Sunday lunchtime to listen to Round the Horne, a half hour comedy sketch show compered by Kenneth Horne and featuring Betty Marsden, Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams. The language of Polari sounded to most like nonsense, but it had been part of the gay subculture of the period and the show used it extensively, along with double entendres and innuendo, to disguise risqué topics. Audiences may have laughed because the words sounded weird or because they had an inkling of their real meaning, but, apart from the few who were outraged, they all laughed. For this stage version, Tim Ashley has taken original scripts by Barry Took and Marty Feldman and compiled them to make two lengthened episodes, performed as if in a 60s BBC studio, complete with a sound effects man (Conrad Segal) sitting in a corner. The show is now embarking on a 50th Anniversary (of the radio version) tour. For anyone not aware of the radio show, the best description could be a sound only equivalent to Little Britain, with familiar characters, catchphrases and variations on the same situations cropping up every week. The outrageous “folk” singer Rambling Syd Rumpo, the dirty old man J Peasemold Gruntfuttock (both Williams) and the ageing actors Dame Celia Molestrangler and Binkie Huckaback (Marsden and Paddick) all became household names and all can be seen here. Particularly daring in its day was the depiction of the unmistakably gay couple Julian (Paddick) and “my friend” Sandy (Williams). Times have changed and these characters are now just over-familiar stereotypes, but, in most other respects, the scripts remain as sharp and, yes, naughty as ever. Laugh-a-line gags and clever wordplay give them a timeless quality and they remain irresistibly funny. The often asked question is “how on Earth could they get away with it?” Modern theatre audiences seeing The Book of Mormon ask the same question and the answer in both cases is the same – when it is so obvious that there is no intention to offend anyone, no offence can be taken. The actors here show a lightness of touch that emphasises that the comedy is mischievous, but never malevolent. With one obvious exception, the radio performers were not prominent in visual media, so the actors here do not need to look like them. The important thing is that they all capture the essence of the originals. Julian Howard McDowell is Horne, the perennial straight (in all ways) man throwing in wry asides. Eve Winters and Jonathan Hansler are flamboyant and versatile as Marsden and Paddick and Nick Wymer perfects his BBC English as the pushy announcer Douglas Smith. Williams remains an iconic figure from radio, television and films, giving Colin Elmer the most difficult job in playing him. There is little physical resemblance, but he replicates the mannerisms, facial gestures and, most importantly, the voice brilliantly. He often gets the audience laughing before he has even reached the microphone. The show’s current home is in the Cooper (Tommy not Henry) Room at the Comedy Museum, where memorabilia from Britain’s comedy heritage is on permanent display. Round the Horne is an important part of that heritage, but this show proves that it is far more than a dormant exhibit. There is plenty of life in it and, although under-50s may wonder what a “thrupenny bit” is, young and old should still find it hilarious.
Performance date: 11 February 2016