JUST as we were beginning to forget what he looked like, that shy recluse Tony Slattery has been coaxed out of hiding to take centre stage in the 'crackling' new West End musical Radio Times.
A podge in a rowdy check suit (sanitised Max Miller meets Chubby Checker avant la lettre), he plays Sammy Shaw, the scriptwriter and star of the wartime wireless show Variety Bandwagon. As part of the effort to persuade the Americans to come into the war, the team is about to do its first live link-up with the States. Unfortunately, nothing is going right. Hitler is showing a total lack of tact with his Blitz; war damage has blocked off some of the performers ('Bloody Nazis. First Poland. Then France. Now the ventriloquists'). And the script has been cut to ribbons by the officious new producer (excellent Peter Rutherford), an undertaker-lookalike who thinks it's insensitive to sing a song about hens because of wartime egg-rationing and won't stand for any entendre that's double. All of which would reduce the show to a minute's silence for those who have perished. Wireless in Gaza could be poor Sammy's subtitle.
As well as being a starring vehicle for Slattery, the show provides a good excuse for reviving the songs of Noel Gay which, whether in wistful or witty mode, have such a strong simple charm and uncynical catchiness, you feel ridiculously purified after listening to them. With its conspicuous lack of jailed South American Marxists and homosexuals, 16th-century German witches, and people who have killed the president of the United States, this backstage comedy of radio ructions and romance is certainly the most parochial of the season's musical offerings. But, in David Gilmore's good-natured production, it puts up a good fight on the Home Front, its unpretentiousness an integral part of its appeal.
Abi Grant's skilful book manages to be genuinely funny, both when aping the radio humour of the period (its relentless 'Down on the Farm' gags - 'Oh, I'm sorry I never accept personal chicks'; 'Open wide, let's have a gander' etc are as corny as Ambridge in August) and when catching the more knowing offstage wit of the performers. 'Before this week,' quips the visiting Hollywood star through the sound of bombing, 'the biggest threat to my existence was Hedda Hopper.'
Tony Slattery leaves you in two minds. He plays the sort of emotionally immature comic who is always 'on' and finds it easier to establish a rapport with a faceless audience than to know when his preoccupied pro's insensitivity is hurting the people in his private life.
Slattery captures the overgrown boy element very well and his performance, which is full of cheeky lapses into lewd body language, fist-in-the-mouth mimings of agony, and split second 180-degree mood-swings, is technically dazzling. He's an actor it's easier to admire than warm to, though, because his effects always look so clinically calculated. You don't see Sammy; you see clever Tony Slattery asserting a slight parodic superiority over him. So when Olive (sweet-voiced Kathryn Evans) chooses his character over Jeff Shankley's charming Hollywood star, the only grounds for her doing so, you feel, must be some misguided form of wartime patriotism.
There is much to enjoy here. Ian Bartholomew is ideally funny-sad in the Donald O'Connor-ish part of Wilf, and James Buller, as the bespectacled, love-lorn sound effects man (knocking coconuts together to herald the approach of Eddie Cantor, geddit?), emerges as the fearless hero of the hour with an appealing bashfulness. The leggy lovelies - Monty Montgomery's magical Melody Makers - also foot it featly. 'Here comes happiness in big large lumps,' they all sing in the finale. That's pushing it a bit perhaps. In Radio Times, pleasure comes in nice manageable portions.
Radio Times continues at the Queen's Theatre, (Box office: 071-494 5040)
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