Theatre Under Their Hats Northcott Theatre, Exeter

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The Independent Culture
Flanders and Swann brought sophistication to the comic song. They didn't have the irony of Coward, although they could pack a punch, as in "Twenty Tons of TNT". Under Their Hats draws output not only from their two-man shows, but from material they wrote for intimate revues of the Fifties, for Moira Lister and Max Adrian and the Scottish bass Ian Wallace.

Their beastly songs may be coy enough for the nursery, but their satire is whole-hearted. It's a complete demolition job on Benjamin Britten and D'Oyly Carte. Most of the best-known songs and a few forgotten gems are in this collection, produced with style and panache by Wendy Toye, and performed with languid good humour by Matt Devereaux, Chris Dickens, Robert Meadmore, Gay Soper, Louise Tomkins and Moray Watson, who may not match the waspishness of Flanders himself, but has a corner in world-weary charm.

There is sufficient diversity in the material to justify a team effort. This literature-witty evening-dress humour is clouds above current trends; a fact noted by an enthusiastic audience on opening night.

Flanders and Swann became a British institution by gently leg-pulling the British character. "The British are the best", a repeating line from their "Song of Patriotic Prejudice", was an easy laugh, and yet songs about the inefficiency of British workers and workmanship were greeted with delight. Michael Flanders and Donald Swann penetrated the heart of British snobbery but left it intact.

Many of the songs here performed fall into the category of British nonsense, following after Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, and are made for chorus- singing. I missed the London sewer-man's song, "Down Below", with its wistful line: "A bloke in Leather Lane/ Dropped a diamond down the drain / And I'm going there again / underneath down below."

This production has three backers: the Rock Theatre, Everett Brooke Williamson and the Northcott Theatre in Exeter, where it is now running before touring to Guildford. It hopes to visit London at a later date.

n To 21 Sept (01392 493493)