Surviving Spike / Britt On Britt / ABFCAP: The Life And Rhymes Of Ian Dury
Various venues, Edinburgh
August, 2008

Celebrities haven't been getting it all their own way. Terry Lubbock, the father of Stuart Lubbock who died in a swimming pool at comedian/presenter Michael Barrymore's house in 2001, staged a one-man opening night protest outside the show in which Barrymore is appearing, Surviving Spike (Assembly @ George Street). Richard Harris's stage adaptation of the memoir of Spike Milligan's long-serving personal manager Norma Farnes is for the most part a two-hander, which makes sense. Jill Halfpenny plays the Yorkshire-born Farnes and serves as a narrator, whilst Barrymore gives a rendition of the bipolar comic legend himself. Those of us who saw Barrymore's brief train-wreck of a West End run five years ago may be surprised at his restraint here. In fact, he is too restrained: any portrayal of Spike Milligan really needs to show his manic phases to their full extent as well as his depressive. Barrymore (like Les Dennis, who appeared in dramatic roles during the last couple of Fringes) is clearly dedicated to his role, and he exhibits a discreet expressiveness in his physical and facial acting. His vocal delivery, on the other hand, is reined in almost to the point of monotony. At one point the script provides him with a few minutes to re-create a solo stand-up concert by Milligan: you can see Barrymore beginning to unwind, yet also holding himself back from the full flight which is what he really wants and what the chaos of Milliganism requires.

Elsewhere in the Assembly Rooms, Britt Ekland hosts an hour-long reminiscence, Britt On Britt, taking in her marriages to Peter Sellers and Slim Jim Phantom of The Stray Cats, her affairs with the likes of Rod Stewart and Lou Adler and, every so often in passing, her screen career. (She also boasts of having appeared with Marianne Faithfull in a stage production of Strindberg’s The Stronger, but doesn’t mention that this is a two-handed play in which only one character speaks…) Her delivery is commendably fake-lively, but doesn’t match the frequently wry script. A video clip of the notorious nude scene from The Wicker Man is paused for Ekland to point first at her own anatomy then at the portions onscreen and succinctly declare, “My ass… not my ass!”

And if you can’t find any actual celebrities or near-celebs for your production, simply do a show about one. This year’s programme includes I Am Robert Mugabe, Caruso And The Quake and the return of Philip York’s enjoyable Lies Have Been Told: An Evening With Robert Maxwell (although in this case, the evening begins at 2pm). A strong recommendation, though, is due to Playback Theatre for their ABFCAP: The Life And Rhymes Of Ian Dury (The Zoo). Jeff Merrifield’s script covers three decades of the symbiotic relationship between the singer and his sometime road manager, failed criminal Fred “Spider” Rowe. Josh Darcy’s Spider is a gentle giant, and Jud Charlton is altogether remarkable as Dury, right down to the phrasing on the handful of musical numbers (performed to, in some cases, backing tracks by the Blockheads themselves). Terrific stuff, and entirely true to Dury and Rowe’s argot: if the venue ran a swear-box, Playback would be bankrupt within 90 seconds.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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