Any hopes I had that Arthur Smith's comic play had matured since I saw it last year at the Brighton Comedy Festival were dashed even before the veteran comedian had opened his mouth. Prior to the first half starting it is the job of Adam Wide, who plays Virgil to Smith's Dante, to go among the audience and take suggestions as to whom they would put in hell. One lady who knew him greeted him and asked whether the show was tighter than it had been. He replied in the negative. Even if he was half-joking then, he was proved to be wholly right by the end of the evening.
In fact, tonight's proceedings came with a disclaimer at almost every turn - Wide's words; the token-effort programme where the audience member is paid 10p to take it from the usher; and Smith's warning at the beginning of the show that the producer has asked him to "panto up" the proceedings. All were to be taken in the fun spirit in which they were intended, but all were also sadly portentous of the incoherent effort to come.
The basic idea behind Smith's Inferno is to entwine its creator's hellish experiences with the demon drink with Dante's descent into hell. Unfortunately this time around, the comic asides that accompany this dual narrative threw the whole thing off-course, at the expense of both the story and the laughs. Worst offender is the vaudeville antics of sidekick Virgil, whose input includes a Hawaiian-style yodel and... well, I'm be damned if I can remember the rest.
Meanwhile, Smith's use of the nine levels of hell is random - more of a vague word association than themed material. For example, in the section on greed, he pipes up: "People say there is no good news. What about Mark Thatcher being arrested?" Amusing certainly, but it seems gratuitous when there is no structured context. In the same section, Smith comes up with the wheeze of inventing a reality television programme called Let's Batter A Fatty; thus ensues some limp slapstick. It's quite hard to believe that this is the same man who once charmed the West End with An Evening With Gary Lineker.
By far the greatest disappointment was the watered-down treatment of Smith's alcohol-induced pancreatitis. It's a poignant tale but, as with all painful experiences, it has a rich vein of comedy. There are still nice lines ("I never had a drink before midday - but then I never got up before midday"), but the progression of his treatment and his experiences with various oddball patients in hospital have been snipped and were hastily dealt with in a token second half lasting 15 minutes.
Tellingly, it was left to the audience to supply the best joke of the evening. Among the collected suggestions for which people the audience would like to put in hell, one wag suggested Kimberly Quinn's family planning advisor. Perhaps this was one of Arthur Smith's own gags that he had planted. Based on what had gone before it would be kind to give him the benefit of the doubt.
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