Show type: Theatre
Of Good Report, by John Antrobus
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Of Good Report is a feast of nostalgia about the wild days enjoyed by the young comedy-writing bucks of Associated London Scripts in the Fifties: the uninhibited world of creative, hedonistic, self-destructive talents riven with personality flaws.
Well it is, but not quite.
Of Good Report is a Mrs Robinson-style romance, the predatory seduction of a naïve young boy by the sexually bored wife of a libidoless middle-aged middle-manager.
Yes. Then again, no.
Of Good Report is a comic intrigue, about a BBC infested with newly demobbed Army types, running the corporation like a battalion and forever afraid of the unseen enemy of the Cold War who they fear are hell-bent on infiltrating the establishment.
OK: Of Good Report is a lively, disjointed, Goonesque romp (no surprise given its creator John Antrobus was once Spike Milligan’s collaborator) full of deft wordplay, impromptu musical numbers, broad Army caricatures and such surreal moments as the entire cast yelping like frisky Alsatians or leaping into an unexpected Cossack dance.
Close, but no OBE.
Antrobus’s new play is all these things at once, which is why it’s so hard to grab a hold of it. It’s as if there are several sub-plots awaiting a central narrative, which never actually arrives. A half-hour radio comedy might forgive this, but it seems a major omission a full-length play.
Despite this fundamental flaw, it is good, pacy fun, an escapist alternative to all the rose-tinted resurrections of Britain’s comedy past that are in such theatrical vogue. And the White Bear Theatre in South London, where this is being staged, know a thing or two about that; for it was here that the joyous revival of Round The Horne was so successfully developed.
Compared to that straightforward resurrection, Of Good Report has the advantage of being autobiographical, of a fashion. Antrobus knew these people - he worked with them and drank with them - and even the selective recall of their personalities is fascinating in itself.
Our hero is called John Antrobus – wherever did he get the idea? – a fresh-faced, idealistic and posh Sandhurst drop-out, who is teamed with a hard-bitten Stalinist Eastender called Johnny Speight to write for the Frankie Howerd radio show. Worlds apart, each was writing with the enemy, but united by their comedy. So far, so historically true.
If anything, the play is about this young innocent being pulled in all directions; everyone he encounters seeing him as raw material they can forge in their own image – whether it be the paranoid BBC executive George Beckett trying to recruit him as some nebulous spy or the Judy Houghton-Twist, the vampish wife of another Beeb man he becomes romantically embroiled with trying to recapture her own youth.
For his part, Antrobus tries desperately, and unsuccessfully, to fit in with all these colliding worlds. When he starts working with Speight, for instance, he copies his speech patters even though every ‘fuck’ sits uneasily on his well-educated lips.
The action proceeds through a number of fragmented set pieces, from the sublime encounter with Gilbert Harding, the pompous, insecure and unhappily closeted homosexual celebrity of the day, to the rather less successful intervention of three fictional tramps to settle an argument between Messers Antrobus and Speight.
Elsewhere, it accurately recreates the stilted writing process, as our two heroes bash out a routine for Frankie Howerd, although, strangely, the actual execution of the radio recording is one of the least well-received scenes in the play.
The action is elevated by the spirited, engaging cast; from Needham’s earnest Antrobus and Jonathan Clarkson’s stammeringly angry young Speight to the smaller roles such as Laura Penneycard’s delightfully elegant Beryl Vertue or Adam Kimmel, who makes a great Gilbert Harding and an even better German shepherd.
It’s hard to see this making quite the impact of Round The Horne… Revisted - for one thing it’s less obviously designed to hit a target market. But it’s an enjoyable, if slightly over-long, look at the real people behind such immortal comedy.
Of Good Report opens at the White Bear Theatre, Kennington, South London, tonight and runs until December 5. Call 020 7793 9193 for tickets. Official home page
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