BARTON'S BACK - it's official. The special agent who wowed radio audiences of more than 10 million in the late 1940s now has Croydon in his thrall. In the days when European unity was a twinkle that had just faded from Hitler's eye, was there anything an Englishman couldn't do with a stiff upper lip, clean underwear, and a toothbrush? Come and witness Andrew C Wadsworth's performance as he dons the immortal trenchcoat and trilby, and you'll certainly see why this formula had the nation grabbing its teacups in patriotic ecstasy. Phil Willmott's reworking of the Dick Barton phenomenon plays gleefully with the post-war opinion that to be British was to own a passport to life.
Nasty concepts such as racism, snobbery and sexual innuendo hadn't fought their way into mainstream thought, and the mood of heady innocence was ripe for satirical pickings. Barton's cleaner-than-clean image was intensified when the BBC realised that, apart from the targeted adult audience, millions of children were tuning in. Much to the disgust of the part's original actor, Noel Johnson, his character had to ditch the girlfriend, cigarettes and alcohol, and become the kind of Dick whom mothers would happily have to tea, but would never dream of inviting into their bedrooms.
More than 50 years later, he has returned to the Warehouse after a 1998 Christmas run that was so successful that a new installment - Dick Barton and the Curse of the Pharaoh's Tomb - will lead Croydon audiences into the millennium. For now, however, they must be satisfied with a repeat run of the first musical Dick Barton Special Agent, in which our intrepid hero is first seen suspended over treacherously sharp machinery, while the evil Baron Skarheart assures him that he will shortly be reduced to "Diced Dick for Barton Bolognese". Skarheart, we hear, was brought up on a hillside by Bavarian wolves, but when he got too much for them, they sent him to Eton. Now he has that essential criminal's accessory - a chip on the shoulder, as well as a tendency to howl when he gets over-excited - and the nation must watch out because the vulpine villain plans to take over Britain by contaminating tea supplies with dope.
Puns, musical jokes and ridiculous choreography litter this production, and it's a combination that has you howling with laughter or groaning for most of the evening. There are some moments when the comic energy flags, but the ludicrously complex plot and the high-calibre musical performances ensure that the momentum sweeps the audience along.
Wadsworth heads a production that is seething with comic ideas: whether it's the Heath Robinson complexity of Baron Skarheart's evil plans, the manipulation of musical classics ("Nessun Dorma" becomes "Stress und Trauma"), or the unadulterated stream of innuendo. Sophie Louise Dann swings skilfully between contrasting roles as femme fatale Marta Heartburn, and the primly virginal Daphne, while Duncan Wisbey's magical skills at the piano underpin the production. It's an evening out to make king and country proud.
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