Gently does it. The Fitzrovia Radio Hour takes us back to the droll and elegant world of light entertainment in the 1940s when the airwaves were full of racy detective shows and overheated melodramas about pushy Yorkshiremen and rogue Nazis.
The show is set in a radio studio during a live performance and we watch the actors rattling through their scripts while scurrying here and there to provide the effects for an exceptionally complex soundtrack. Cabbages get walloped with machetes to suggest stabbing. A game of billiards is done with some doorknobs being chinked together. A melon gets squished to represent the sound of a horse having its head chopped off. It’s a neat idea. The gulf between what’s seen in the studio and what’s heard by the listener is enormous, and the breezy glamour of the performers contrasts strangely with the sheer clumsiness of the noise-making apparatus.
And there’s more. The wacky and surreal drama scripts are interrupted by daft adverts for pills and potions which are clearly class-A drugs disguised as pick-me-ups. With so many sources of comedy this show can’t possibly go wrong. Can it? Er, well, yes, that’s just the problem.
Never mind the lack of relevance there’s not enough basic simplicity here. Five performers on stage delivering silly lines in silly voices, wielding silly props and wearing silly hats makes everything a bit too hectic. The non-stop larks are complicated by low-level bickering between the actors, who pretend to elbow each other aside to reach for the equipment that produces the mirthful soundscape. A terrible zaniness is born.
The performers clearly adore the epoch they’re sending up, so it seems churlish to point out that the show lacks bite. But it does. Too many gags rely on the recent semantic evolution of words like gay and queer. And occasionally the script flirts with insensitivity. No one would dream of writing jokes about same-sex love nowadays but here ze gays heff Cherman helmets unt funny exents so now ze gayness, it’s hilarious, ja? Well, sort of. But it’s funny because of the association with xenophobia and jingoism, and the gags assume that the audience accepts the view that being gay is the same as being unvirile and freakish.
One wonders if the troupe’s best asset, Alix Dunmore, has been told that with her amazing looks, exquisite comic touch and astonishing range of vocal effects, she’s carrying more than half the production on her own.
At the same venue there’s another show with an even more complicated premise and a barmier title. Barbershopera, Apocalypse No! features a quartet of singers who perform an a capello musical which spoofs the Book of Revelation using the medium of the delta blues. Weird. But once these strange elements are in place the show achieves lift-off thanks to a strong score, excellent lyrics and a fundamentally simple idea, namely to satirise the ethics of mushy liberalism from an unusual angle.
The story concerns Beth, a primary school teacher, who gets caught up with the four horsemen of the apocalypse as they’re about to destroy humanity and usher in Armageddon. But the horsemen (who fear being replaced by a back-up unit, the four Norsemen of the apocalypse) have gone all soft. War is a pacifist. Pestilence is obsessed with hygiene. Famine loves a good fry-up and Death has expired in a mysterious kitchen accident which leaves room for Beth (get it?) to take his place.
Most of the jokes are good. Some are brilliant. At one point Beth visits an orphanage-cum-convent where the kids are starving because the nuns have taken a vow of idleness. All four performers are assured comedians and the show has been drilled to a standard that would satisfy a Royal Marine board of inspection. Lara Stubbs’s voice is exceptional and she’s matched by Rob Castell, who has a rumble in his throat that John Lee Hooker would envy.
My only quibbles are minor. The title is bonkers. One or two of the songs repeat narrative developments rather than revealing them. And the men’s costumes are a bit cheap and cheerful. Could it be a hit? Well, it hasn’t entirely sold out this 110-seat venue, I’m afraid, so probably not. A little too avant-garde and off-beat. But if I were a billionaire theatrical mastermind I’d have this bunch at the top of my must-see list. I’d show up at their dressing-room, do my mad laugh, and then helicopter them off to my desert island for a month and force them to write a West End smash.
More Spectator for less. Stay informed leading up to the EU referendum and in the aftermath. Subscribe and receive 15 issues delivered for just £15, with full web and app access. Join us.