Celebrating Linda Smith

Note: This review is from 2008

Review by Steve Bennett

The walls of this, like every other, arts centre, are an indictiment of modern theatrical appetites. Posters herald the forthcoming attractions of The Counterfeit Police, Stairway to Zeppelin, Buddy Holly & The Cricketers, One Night With Elvis….

Tonight, however, the tribute act is altogether different; an homage to the award-winning wit of the much-missed Linda Smith. But while any competent group of musicians can make a decent fist of recreating the sound of their rock and roll heroes, capturing the essence of a comedian proves a lot more difficult.

That’s because comedy’s so much more than the material. As the great philosopher once said, ‘it’s the way I tell ’em’ – and it’s near-impossible to replicate that timing, delivery and personality that make a comedian a star. So Kate Rutter, the old friend tasked with recreating highlights from Linda’s back stand-up catalogue, is almost inevitably going to be a pale comparison; an actress pretending to be a comic, never fully owning the persona.

It’s one of several fundamental flaws that make this an ultimate unsatisfying show, however laudable the twin aims of keeping Linda’s memory alive and raising funds to fight the ovarian cancer that claimed her too early. Her partner, Warren Lakin, who has so far done so much to preserve her legacy, here comes something of a cropper.

He is not only behind the show, but also narrates it, which involves reading from his previously published memoirs of Linda. But although they met on the stage, it’s been a long time since he was on it – and his delivery is stilted and stiff. Some of this could be ascribed to first-night awkwardness, but it seems deeper than that. A creakily scripted exchange with ‘Lieutenant Columbo’, asking probing Linda’s personality, is so wooden you could make furniture out of it.

Also, Linda’s life is not the stuff of high drama. She was a bright, down-to-earth, well-read, level-headed, loyal and principled person whose biggest vice was gardening, not some hard-living, self-destructive type.

This comes across in the biographical details that are interspersed with segments of her act as it evolved from Sheffield miners’ benefits to Radio 4 panel games. Those Yorkshire days, particularly, suffer from being recreated today; Linda’s comedy was understandably less well-formed then than the dry, cutting wit we know her for – plus the polite audience of a Home Counties arts centre, with an average age of around 60, is a far cry from the febrile atmosphere of a proud, defiant community fighting for its survival. Her heartfelt sign-off ‘Goodnight comrades - victory to the miners!’ should not be greeted merely by a polite smattering of applause.

The sense of the evening is therefore like you’ve walked into a funeral of someone you barely knew, just as the eulogies are starting. There’s obvious affection in what’s being said, and the subject of the uncomfortable speeches was clearly a loved and talented person, but as an observer you are rather detached from it all. And despite the title, here isn’t much of a celebratory mood about Linda Smith - Tour at Chortle.co.uk">Celebrating Linda Smith – unlike the previous large-scale benefit gigs in London – more a respectful run-through of her biography.

As well as Rutter re-running some of Linda’s routines, guest Gwyneth Strong – best know as Cassandra from Only Fools And Horses – also reads a couple of old gem, pulling off a skilful impersonation of Linda’s voice. Meanwhile, Mike McCarthy, another of Linda’s old mockers, plays various supporting roles – from the gruff working men’s club host to the aforementioned Columbo.

The strength of Linda’s writing does shine through the theatrical recreations, but they can never do justice to the real deal. The only time I properly laughed out loud was at a tape recording of the genuine article, an all-too brief clip of her being typically sublime on Just A Minute. If this tribute were a TV show, rich with such genuine footage, it would be hilarious. As a stage experience, it seems much more ill conceived.

That’s never true so than the 25 minutes that seem grafted on from another show altogether. The talented torch singer Barb Jungr soulfully re-engineers some mostly mournful numbers from Nina Simone’s repertoire; using the plausible excuse that Linda loved Nina. But six long songs, interspersed with irrelevant banter (‘the anger is the anger of life force,’ she helpfully explained about once number) really have nothing to do with rest of the proceedings. It narrows the show’s overall appeal down to the Venn diagram overlap of die-hard fans of both Linda and the half-German, half-Czech chanteuse.

This may not be the perfect tribute to her; but let us not forget that Linda was a genius – but genius is best experienced first hand. The best way of celebrating her remarkable talent would surely be to buy her CD – here – and donate to ovarian cancer charities – here.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Milton Keynes, March 6, 2008

Review date: 7 Mar 2008
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

What do you think?

We see you are using AdBlocker software. Chortle relies on advertisers to fund this website so it’s free for you, so we would ask that you disable it for this site. Our ads are non-intrusive and relevant. Help keep Chortle viable.