On the first night of this stage adaptation of the popular 1960s BBC radio show, the last surviving member of the Horne writing team, Brian Cooke, is proudly taking photos. Along with their fellow creators Barry Took and Marty Feldman, Johnnie Mortimer and Cooke helped Round The Horne rattle along after the show was stripped of musical accompaniment (courtesy of Edwin Braden and the Hornblowers and the Fraser Hayes Four). Bill Pertwee, a surviving member of the Beyond Our Ken/ Round the Horne cast, had also gone, leaving the core group that is portrayed here; Douglas Smith (Charles Armstrong), Betty Marsden (Kate Brown), Hugh Paddick (Nigel Harrison) Kenneth Williams (Robin Sebastian) and Kenneth Horne (Jonathan Rigby). This quintet will be the latest in Cooke's showbiz family album, which depicts the prime movers from decades of comedy.
The comedy world is as small and intimate as the White Bear Theatre, and Round the Horne is a valuable snapshot of this world. Is it one that we should be digging out? Yes and no. Palare may be passé, but the Julian-and-Sandy sketches are brimming with innuendo and are still great fun. Cooke has written a new one for the show, the Bona Cookery School, and because Julian and Sandy stand out as fresh in all senses, a mention of the current celebrity chef Anthony Worrall Thompson doesn't jar.
It is a short journey from this playful homosexual duo to the "Suits you, sir" sketches of The Fast Show, and then onward. Contrast that to the bawdy tunes of Rambling Syd Rumpo, which seem as dusty as the folk style they parody, or to the deliberately rusty banter of Charles and Fiona. Still, the show jogs along, punctuated by chuckles if not by belly laughs, the juxtaposition of zany profanity with deadpan RP still working a treat.
But what of the cast, playing to an audience smaller than that of the original recordings? They all look as if they are enjoying demonstrating their vocal dexterity. Nigel Harrison's Hugh Paddick and Jonathan Rigby's Kenneth Horne are close to the originals, and Kate Brown ably takes on all the female roles that Betty Marsden once did.
Naturally, there is a particular focus on Kenneth Williams, a prized role and one where all the familiar inflections are guaranteed big laughs. Despite looking healthier and more at ease with himself than Williams must have been, Robin Sebastian carries off the role with aplomb. But while Williams passes the test with the audience, the whole cast, all of whom went through a rigorous audition process, get the thumbs up from Brian Cooke. "When I close my eyes, I can hear that the whole thing is 70 per cent there," says the writer. "I almost asked them to put a tag-line on the poster saying "Close your eyes and open your minds", but I don't think they would go for that."
Probably not. But Cooke's suggestionraises the question, why do the show at all? Are you better off buying the BBC recordings of the show, rather than trudging off to a fringe venue to have the whole thing replicated second-hand, albeit very expertly? In one respect, this is a non-event - it offers no new insight or narrative. But it is nonetheless a very pleasant way to spend a winter evening.
If this stage adaptation pulls in those uninitiated to the delights of the radio series, then all the better. Either way,Horne aficionados will almost certainly go vada.
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