Armstrong & Miller

Note: This review is from 2010

Review by Steve Bennett

Oh dear, something’s gone a bit wrong here. If Armstrong & Miller’s new show was a student fringe production, you might praise their promise and be mildly amused. But they are indisputably two of Britain’s finest comic actors, with primetime BBC One exposure and an incredible 15 writers credited to their stage show. For such a big ticket, you might expect more than a few mild titters.

This tour’s official press night in Bristol a couple of weeks ago, was blighted by technical problems, which didn’t go unmentioned by the critics then. But here in Brighton, the flaws are their own: the more insoluble problem of a lacklustre script is what hampers the show.

They’ve certainly got some excellent ideas – their wartime flying aces speaking in modern street patois are rightly celebrated. But with four sketches a night, including a knowing Matter Of Life Or Death parody, they recur with a frequency even Little Britain might be embarrassed by, suggesting this whole show rests on the strength of just two characters. They reference the fact, oh-so-postmodernly, but still stands.

Then they mine the anachronistic seam again, with the thematically similar Jane Austen spoof – in which well-to-do society figures clash with aggressive modern music. It’s pretty funny, but isn’t it the same joke?

Their performances could do with being a lot looser. There’s a glint of what could be in a couple of audience participation sketches: Miller’s scarily intense divorcee Jilted Jim and Armstrong’s perverted dentist hint at the fun they could have with the audience, while Katherine Jakeways in support is a little more playful, but mostly this is a formal affair.

Production is fantastic, but what’s missing is passion; it seems to be a perfunctory skip through their well-known characters. Even when they try to inject a little razzle-dazzle, it’s with little success. What should have been a big dancing caveman number about the genesis of language is performed with little enthusiasm, while a faux folk song celebrating the artistry of Britain’s hat-makers is so sincere and accurate, it’s no longer spoof. They engage in some slapstick with the audience, courtesy of their passive-aggressive lesbian cooks, but it seems rather forced and tired.

The fact that we do know the characters is a double-edged sword; the familiarity that drew audiences in the first place makes surprises difficult. So when clumsy art historian Dennis Lincoln-Park arrives, you know destruction will follow. Only an inventive bit of interaction with the video screen – no doubt inspired by talented director Sean Foley – provides any sort of unexpected behaviour.

The best two sketches are a spoof of Fifties gameshow What’s My Line? called How Many Hats?, and an intriguingly disorientating conversation between holidaymakers which an English bloke tries to explain the concept of crazy paving to a non-comprehending German. They are less accessible scenes, but third of the audience that love them, REALLY love them, as opposed to the bulk of A&M’s work which is universally received with mild, benign amusement.

You can admire the professionalism in the costume changes, props, scenery and video projection, but a lot of the effort seems misspent: such as the recurring World Of Warcraft animations that believe parodying the jiggling-breast sexism of such adolescent fantasy is endlessly amusing. It isn’t. And spare us sketches that shamelessly plug all the merchandise available in the foyer, however much irony might be used to offset the embarrassment of such blatant marketeering.

Armstrong and Miller have accumulated a lot of hard-earned respect, but a few choice moments aside, this is a largely disappointing effort from what should be Britain’s foremost sketch duo. Isn’t it, though?

Review date: 15 Oct 2010
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Brighton Theatre Royal

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