Review: Fringe Report

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Friday 23 August 02 / Gilded Balloon Cowgate Studio

The capacity crowd can bearly contain its thirst for knowledge. There’s a projection screen, and a lectern decorated with ancient Egyptian symbols. There’s also a keyboard, suggesting a wide range to the legendary speaker’s talents and … a two-ring mini-oven.

A voice-over builds up the arrival of the distinguished Vice-President of the British Egyptological Society (Doncaster Branch), and finally the great man arrives, or rather, stumbles, on stage – Count Arthur Strong.

Count Arthur is pretty old, and so is his dinner jacket which clashes with his pork-pie hat. ‘Hat’, someone calls from off-stage, and he takes it off, shambling over to the lectern to consult his clipboard.

‘There’s nothing on it’ he shouts to the help off stage, and tosses it aside. It’s not a good start, and there’s worse to come. With as much dignity as an elderly gent with unreliable memory and a pencil-line moustache can muster, the Count explains the talk about Ancient Egypt is off. His slide projector’s been damaged, and the priceless slides lost.

Instead, the versatile Count Arthur’s going to talk about a range of topics, from gardening to the world of showbusiness, culminating in a tribute to his old chum Sir Rex Harrison. It’s time for a drink.

There’s a table with a plant-pot next to the lectern, bearing also a glass of ‘apple juice’ from which the Count takes frequent sips. He’s quoting freely now, either from ‘Churchill, or Sir William Shakespeare, the Bard On Avon’, he’s not sure which. The plant’s also a handy place for storing unwanted pairs of glasses, and he tries on several pairs before finding the right one. That’s the problem with getting glasses from the local butcher – Wilf Taylor’s Quality Meats. His advice to Wilf is not to leave the shop to his ungrateful son Granville (‘I don’t care, I don’t want the f***ing shop’), even though he’s just ‘bought him an electrical guitar’.

‘Wow!’ The Count’s interrupted by a sudden unseen flying object, and ducks. Must be static, due to the socks he’s got on. He ducks again. ‘What’s going on?’ he shouts to the unseen technician (‘Pretty girl – Leanne, very sharp’). It’s a coat-hanger that’s got jammed in his jacket, and he hurls it off-stage.

‘It’s very important before going on to warm up the voice.’ He and Larry Olivier used to do tongue-twisters. Red leather lolly yellow, for example. And ‘I rattled my bottles in Rollick’s yard. You have to be a bit careful with this one.’ By the time it’s become ‘Rogered my bottom in Bollock’s yard,’ he reckons his articulation is fine, and he’s ready to attempt saying Tutenkamen. Count Arthur has a way of remembering this ‘Toot The Car Horn’, and a handy reference book – The Egyptian Diaries of Lord Carnarthon.

Take this entry: 6 November, Cairo, 1922. ‘God, it’s hot … Felafels for dinner, hurrah! Lavatories disgusting.’

The Count shares the warm-up exercises that have justly brought fame to his ‘Doncaster Academy of Performance’ (‘It’s just like The RADA, they’re all telling me that’) – drawn from the Alexandria Technique. The oven comes into its own for his explosive lesson on felafel-making (from his successful cookery programme for Doncaster Cable) – an Egyptian dish worthy to rival ‘Sir Elgin Marble’s Cleopatra’s Noodles’.

Speaking without notes, he delivers a first-class summary of Egyptian excavations (discovering where Father Christmas hides out the rest of the year), and his film career (Sir Harry Mayhew QC, with Peter Butterworth in Lawrence of A Labia). There’s more from Lord Carnarthon (’30 September 1922. River Nile, Egypt. 11.30 pm. Sheila snoring like a lawn-mower’).

There’s a sensational demonstration of Count Arthur’s ventriloquist skills, with the mute mummy dummy Tiny Tut (‘375 yards of bandages: my, my, you have been through the wars’). Together, they duet ‘Anything you can do, I can do better’, while the Count attempts to finish the glass of liquid refreshment.

Things predictably go terribly wrong, particularly technically, with the moving finale tribute to Sir Rex Harrison. The Count covers these by attempting to play the piano himself – after all, it can’t be too difficult. But hitherto unknown aspects of Sir Rex’s career are highlighted – from his humble beginnings in London’s East End – where he grabbed somebody else’s coat and threw it in front of the Queen Mother to prevent her falling down a water-filled bomb-crater – to his appearance as Doctor Doolittle in The Bridge Over The River Kwai

Count Arthur has played a number of venues, including Canal Café Theatre, London; Komedia, Brighton; and Gilded Balloon, Edinburgh. It’s a unique and very funny show, and the illusion of the character is never allowed to slip. The capacity audience at this performance didn’t stop laughing from start to stumbling finish. It’s wholly delightful, impish fun.

The elderly Count Arthur Strong is assisted by the much younger actor Steve Delaney.

John Park



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