Theatre Royal Haymarket, London SW1
Opened 10 February, 2005

What with the cast and the star-studded audience, if someone had bombed the opening night of Acorn Antiques, they would have wiped out all of Britain’s 1980s comic talent. And also Ben Elton.  And, tasteless though it is, there were times when my mind strayed thataway.  Look, I know this will come over as a luvvie snob looking down his nose at popular entertainment, but the truth is this isn’t actually a very good show.

You get three different versions of Victoria Wood’s TV soap parody in the course of a three-hour evening. First there are rehearsals for the show which a posey director (Neil Morrissey) has tried to make trendily hard-hitting.  Then, after a cast revolt, we see an absurd attempt to combine his script with songs from a cheesy old show.  Finally, after the interval, the “West End” version arrives in all its glory.

Three versions in one: bumper value for money. (And with ticket prices peaking at an unprecedented £65, you need it!)  Well, no. More a sign that Wood doesn’t have a single overarching idea that will carry through a full-length show.   Acorn Antiques, after all, started out as just a strand of brief TV sketches. Put so much Acorny material together, and you begin to see how awkwardly the pieces actually fit with one another.

Julie Walters is, of course, a godlike comedienne. Both the doddering Mrs Overall and Bo Beaumont, the ageing luvvie who plays her, are prime Walters creations. But the join isn’t flush.  All those comic fluffed exits, stumbled lines etc, are pure Mrs Overall, but rather less Bo Beaumont. It’s the laugh that’s important, not the logic.  And there’s nothing wrong with that now and again. But not three hours’ worth.

Victoria Wood is of course also gifted at writing humorous songs in a variety of genres. And by gum, that gift gets exercised in full over the evening.  The second half of Act Two, especially, feels as if she’s just rushing through all the different kinds of song she wanted to parody without considering the shape of the show beneath it all.  And paradoxically, all these different genre songs begin to sound the same.

At one point Trevor Nunn takes the mickey out of his own directing work on Les Misérables. But aside from that moment, you couldn’t really tell that this show was directed by someone with a fondness for musical spectaculars.  It’s full of comedy moments, but even Trev can’t impose any real shape on it.  (There’s a joke somewhere that at least it’s shorter and funnier than Blood Brothers. Well, shorter it ain’t.)

The thing is – and again, I know this will sound snobbish – this is theatre for people who don’t know theatre.  Its theatrical gags, even in the luvviest scenes, are at best broad and basic, or twenty years out of date.  It’s a show to let people see well-loved figures and applaud them (over a dozen times in Walters’ case), not to worry about whether it “works”. But for £65 it ought to “work”. And it doesn’t.

Written for Teletext.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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