Live Review: The Guardian May 2017This entry was posted in Press on .
Count Arthur Strong -blissfully, brilliantly bewildered
by Brian Logan
at the London Palladium
Not the least of the achievements of Steve Delaney’s extraordinary character Count Arthur Strong is that he’s made mincemeat of the distinction between mainstream and niche. At points in his touring show, The Sound of Mucus, the spirit of popular, golden-age British comedy is distilled. At others, the Count’s confusion and constipated syntax so strains the patience, you could be watching the most audience-baiting genus of live art. What’s consistent is the blood-vessel-busting commitment of Delaney’s performance – a brand of character-comedy-as-transubstantiation that’s attainable only after 20 years’ meticulous refinement.
The opening half hour, a battery of malapropisms and garbled logic from the senile and bibulous Count, had an effect on me as vitalising as that of his “medicinal Lucozade”: I felt giddy with delight. The evening starts as it means to go on, as a faulty safety curtain reveals Arthur and his stooges Malcolm and Alan only from the knees down. Everything that can be botched will be botched, from the Count’s proposed tribute to “Redcar and Hammerstein’s” Sound of Music, via an emphysemic rendition of Bill Withers’ Lovely Day, to his bid to eclipse Benny Hill as the greatest ever Shamrock Hitler … sorry, Sherlock Holmes.
If he’s got a dozen tortuous misnomers for that fictional detective, there are twice that many for Benedict Cumberbatch, a moniker that proves almost fatal to the barking Count. But the most memorable moment in Delaney’s Holmes sequence may be the wordless one that finds the Count’s sidekicks trying and failing to dress him in deerstalker and cape: a little visual symphony of dottiness, like something from the days of music hall. The voice-throwing skit – strictly a joke about Arthur’s total ignorance of that art – is almost as sublime, save that we’ve seen it from the Count on plenty prior occasions.
You could say the same about, say, his Feeding of the Five Thousand routine (first seen in Edinburgh 14 years ago) or his enthusiasm for The Sound of Music, aired on his radio show in 2005. Perhaps that’s fair enough: reviving and scrambling old material is in keeping with the Count’s forgetful shtick. And besides, no radio show could do justice to the spectacle of Count Arthur frolicking in Alpine regalia, forever tugging at the gusset of his too-tight lederhosen.
The von Trapp sequence is set up to be the grand finale, but soars a little lower than the Count’s best set pieces, and ends with a whimper. Elsewhere, there are passages in which the novelty of Arthur’s linguistic snafus wanes, and his bewilderment now and then leads more to stasis than hilarity. But there remains much to enjoy, from the Count’s would-be sage but self-perplexing apercus (“They say you never forget where you are whenever President Kennedy gets himself assassinated”) to his flashes of baroque misanthropy – a detour into the practicalities of suffocation being a particular and unexpected treat. As so often in the past, Delaney’s act offers a pretty rare combination of entertainment and enervation, but it’s undeniably brilliant.