REVIEW: Count Arthur Strong, Bristol Hippodrome, 5/5 by Mike Norton
The Bristol Post: April 20, 2015
Let me, as Arthur might put it, lay all my playing cards facing up on the dining room table. I used to be a big fan of Count Arthur Strong. By which I mean Radio-Show Arthur.
Radio-Show Arthur began his life on Radio 4 in 2005 after the character’s creator, writer and performer Steve Delaney made a considerable name for himself on the comedy circuit.
Radio-Show Arthur was an unrelentingly selfish, self-obsessed, malapropian and utterly dysfunctional washed-up variety performer and sixties TV extra who ruined every unlikely performance opportunity he was given. The cult series saw him blunder through and destroy a radio play, a game show a lecture and even a panto (to name but a few).
It was comedy genius – but not to everyone’s taste. I once saw Delaney play Arthur at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and, while half the audience was laughing uncontrollably, plenty of other people were walking out shaking their heads.
Radio-Show Arthur was such a success (for some) that Delaney was given a BBC TV series in 2013. But the creation of TV-Show Arthur was, for me, when things started to go slightly wrong. Changes were made. A big-name comedy writer – Graham Linehan – was brought in to work with Delaney. New characters were introduced. Rory Kinnear was added as a foil to Arthur – in fact, he was annoyingly given as much, if not more, airtime. There was even a love interest (for Rory, not Arthur). But the Arthur that many of us loved was watered down – less obnoxious, less damaged and, as a consequence, less funny.
I completely understand why it was done. This was a mainstream version of the character for a mainstream TV audience. And it wasn’t all bad, there were flashes of brilliance when the old Arthur was hinted at. But TV-Show Arthur just wasn’t as funny as Radio-Show Arthur.
So it was with some trepidation that I went to the Hippodrome last night to see Arthur’s latest stage show (“Somebody Up There Licks Me”, the title of which is apparently still the subject of a legal dispute with a printer in Doncaster). The fact that Arthur could fill the theatre was undoubtedly thanks to his new-found TV fame. But would the character be insipid TV-Show Arthur?
The answer was an emphatic no. From the moment Delaney staggered on stage shouting at the sound man to “turn off the music off” I knew were were in for a treat. And we really were. What we got was 90 fantastically funny minutes of classic, Radio-Show Count Arthur Strong – pretentious angry, confused, half-drunk, opportunistic, forgetful, chaotic, selfish, accusative and incompetent. But always delusional about his ability and reputation.
It was so uncompromising that I have no idea what anyone in the audience who had seen just the TV series made of it. But I and many people around me were in danger of bursting a blood vessel.
There were so many great moments. The tribute to Rex Harrison – who Arthur quickly started calling “Rex Harris” and eventually a budgie called Billy. The visit to the “Wilds of Borneo” – a diabolical ventriloquism act with a mangy and conveniently untalkative oran-u-tan called Sulky Monkey. And the lay-preacher sermon that turned the story of Adam and Eve in to the story of Alan and Evelyn, in the garden of Edam (“which, by the way, is a very good sandwich cheese”).
Every scene was underpinned by an extraordinary performance by Delaney. It was partly physical – as he panted around the stage awkwardly, dragging one leg – and partly an amazing feat of mental agility. Arthur’s psychological and verbal confusion is clearly nothing of the sort. It’s all about Delaney’s faultless delivery and timing. And everything going wrong chaotically for Arthur ironically relied on Delaney never putting a foot wrong.
Which he didn’t. His performance was flawless right down to Arthur’s final line (“Now sod off!”).
Welcome back, Radio-Show Arthur. We’ve missed you.