Count Arthur Strong's Command Performance

Note: This review is from 2011

Review by Steve Bennett

The best character comedy lies in the chasm of delusion between blinkered self-image and harsh reality, which is why Radio 4 veteran Count Arthur Strong offers such rich potential.

This aging thespian is what Alan Partridge is destined to be – a bumbling, blithering buffoon, as hopeless and as egotistical as he is short-tempered. His failing vocabulary only adds to his ratcheting frustration and splenetic yet impotent, fury. Blind to his own Everest of failings, he’s convinced he is surrounded by fools and nincompoops, sabotaging his mighty theatrical ambitions.

His Command Performance tour, starting spookily enough in Partridge’s Norwich home, is as extravagantly shambolic as fans have come to expect: a showcase of his dubious talents ostensibly to convince the Royal family to have him on the televised Variety Performance – an aim inevitably doomed to collapse under the weight of his unprofessionalism.

The variety-show format allows him to dust down a couple of his greatest hits such as his take on the folk wisdom of the Deck Of Cards song – where the Biblical message hidden in the pack gets hilariously mangled when his addled brain confuses the Three Wise Men with the Three Blind Mice – or the delightfully cack-handed ventriloquist routine, involving a fully bandaged Tiny King Tut.

This bit of business dates from one of Count Arthur’s earliest Edinburgh outings, almost a decade ago. Even then, creator Steve Delaney seemed to fully inhabit the character, so now every tic, splutter and magnificent malapropism has become second nature. This finely-judged verbal, and occasionally physical, slapstick can be slight in isolation, but builds up so when a punchline comes – and the writing is often so much more than just using the wrong words in the wrong places – the effect is magnified.

Delaney is helped in this by frequent collaborator Terry Kilkelly, who plays both the Count’s long-suffering stage manager Malcolm, blamed for every inevitable disaster, and Renee, a brassy, dipsomaniac Scouse cook who aids him in a Ready, Steady, Cook sequence. The consequences of this are predictable, but there’s fun to be had on the route there. Again, though, this is a revival of an episode of his radio show – and one criticism has to be the reliance on so much previous work in a show that runs for around 80 minutes, plus interval.

But if you’re new to this music-hall throwback, or only on nodding acquaintances with him, this selection box of heroic failure is a very fine introduction. Like Count Arthur himself, the humour can be old-fashioned, but he has taken the best traditions of exaggerated foolishness and made them his inimitable own. Get him on the real Royal 'Commando' Performance now.

Review date: 12 Feb 2011
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Norwich Playhouse

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