Leicester Square Theatre, London WC2
  Opened 22 April, 2009

When 1960s radio comedy show Round The Horne was Revisited in a stage show in 2004, I enjoyed the material whilst being mystified about the appeal of the staging. The venue was done up like the BBC’s Paris studio, complete with illuminated “Applause” sign, and the cast stood in a row, scripts in hand, delivering their lines into period microphones. But the power of nostalgia proved strong, and the show ran for more than a year. The team responsible – principally director/producer Michael Kingsbury and surviving scriptwriter Brian Cooke – have now taken the same approach with its successor programme, after Kenneth Horne’s sudden death resulted in material being retooled for a series starring his most illustrious support player Kenneth Williams.
However, Stop Messing About ran for only two series on radio (in 1969–70), and one can see why. Williams’ strength in Round The Horne was being able to subvert straight-man Horne with marvellously inventive filth; as the lead player himself, he had no pricks to kick against, as it were. Announcer Douglas Smith, whilst filling a Horne-like role, was clearly a subordinate. Consequently, the smutty doubles entendres lose much of their savour; they were so much more delicious when apparently stolen than when given freely. Put it this way: the warmest response of the evening (twice) is for Williams’ classic line “Infamy! Infamy! They’ve all got it in for me!”, which is nothing to do with the series but hails from the film Carry On Cleo.
I doubt Kingsbury and Cooke would have undertaken this second project if they had not found in Robin Sebastian a perfect Williams. Michael Sheen in the TV biodrama Fantabulosa! may have shown the less sparkling side of the man, but Sebastian captures the way Williams luxuriated in his performances. Each one of his nasal sniggers is relished like a delicacy. Nigel Harrison’s reprise of his role as Hugh Paddick is less effective, falling prey to the flaw behind the presentation overall; Emma Atkins is an enthusiastic performer, but in that bottle-blonde bouffant she strikes me as resembling less Joan Sims (whom she is playing) than Liz Fraser. I fear that, to use a notorious nudge-nudge line, there may not be as many warm hands on Williams’ entrance this time around.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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