Count Arthur Strong: The Sound of Mucus
Gig review by Steve Bennett at The Palace Theatre, Southend
At his best, Count Arthur Strong can safely be mentioned in the same breath as Tommy Cooper. He’s cut from the same cloth, one foot in the camp of old-fashioned variety, the other trying to kick down those traditions, but thwarted because he got it stuck in bucket.
There’s no guessing what inspired his latest tour: ‘one of the best musicals I can remember’ – not that this befuddled former luminary of stage and screen can ever recall that much. Nor, in fact, does the story of the Von Trapps offer much of a through-line to link the various bits of comedic business executed by this inspired crossover of egotist and incompetent.
There are set pieces from the moment the curtain rises… all of about 12 inches, leaving us with only a knee-down view of Count Arthur and his put-upon sidekicks of Malcolm (Terry Kilkenny) and Alan (Dave Plimmer, deliciously dappy in his workman’s overalls, channelling Norman Wisdom’s loveable simpleton).
As the show progresses, the borderline-senile old fool has a bash at ventriloquism, courtesy of Sulky Monkey and the visually hilarious Little King Tut – the logistics of having a puppet on each arm causing the ever-struggling Count even more difficulties. And there’s singing, too, combined with the wheezing it takes to get through Bill Withers’ Lovely Day.
In his eagerness to showcase all his talents, he also suggests a TV programme based on his (tone-deaf) ear for impressions, like a low-rent version of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon – The Trip… To Wetherspoon’s, anyone?
Somehow the shambles leads to a Sherlock Holmes sketch, initially predicated on the opportunities for hilarities that the name ‘Benedict Cumberbatch’ offers to the tongue-twisted entertainer, but which ends in a precise bit of physical comedy, conducted at leisurely pace and in near-silence, that’s such a pitch-perfect throwback to a simpler age of comedy it should almost be in black and white.
This skit aside, there seem to be fewer spoonerisms and malapropisms this time around, though they are always delightfully done with the skill Count Arthur creator Steve Delaney has spent more than two decades perfecting. Instead, there’s a bit more focus on the inherent comic tragedy of the character, forever thwarted by inadequacies his arrogance blinds him to. ‘Rehearsals,’ he sighs at Malcolm, ‘Are for people who don’t know what they are doing. And when such ill-preparedness means things inevitably don’t go his way, he snaps testily at others. Remind you of any Commanders-in-chief?
After all the digressions, the Count does eventually get to the long-promised Sound Of Music recreation, offering him the chance to dress up in lederhosen and to try ambitiously, to extend his playing age to ’16 going on 17’. The finale to this is actually a bit of an anticlimax, the execution just a bit too messy and rushed and with the promised big ending failing to materialise, even in the context that such a finale will be an omnishambles.
But by then we’ve enjoyed so many moments of laugh-out-loud absurdity, subtly slapstick in both word and deed, from this perfectly-realised fool, that to grumble would be churlish.