Clowning/physical theatre company The Right Size went through what co-founder Hamish McColl describes as "an existential wobble" in the early 1990s, staging a handful of angst-filled shows with larger casts, and largely failing to reconcile their gloomier tone with the company's established style. With Stop Calling Me Vernon on last year's Edinburgh Fringe they returned triumphantly to what they do best: oblique, surreal and fundamentally English eccentricity. It has taken a year for Vernon to be given the London run it deserves, and the show has lost none of its barmy flair in the interim.
McColl and Sean Foley, The Right Size's performing core, are discovered onstage standing behind a blanket, with pillows strapped to their heads, singing a ukulele-accompanied song about these bizarre sleeping arrangements and the dreams they enjoy. It is our introduction to the funhouse, madhouse world of failed end-of-the-pier double-act Austin and Porter, who spend their days honing their number-coded gags and waiting expectantly for the day when they will be asked to display such gems as no. 99, "Waiter on Elastic", in front of a big-time audience.
Austin and Porter's world owes much to the conventions of such double-acts as Morecambe and Wise, albeit writ large and in Dayglo colours. However, theirs is not a permanent funny-man/stooge relationship. Lanky, lugubrious Foley as Porter comes off slightly the worse in terms of pratfalls, comedy fights and violence from inanimate objects – he even forestalls the inevitable custard-pie gag by diving unprovoked into the goo – but each performer vies to outdo the other in terms of lunacy, whilst still meshing perfectly in the tightly choreographed slapstick sequences.
The long-awaited big break arrives in the form of a special delivery from an oddly schizophrenic postman. McColl and Foley's comic mastery is nowhere more apparent than in their deftness with this small wooden box. Simply by setting it at the front of the stage, pandering to it and occasionally being battered by a disembodied arm which emerges from it, they convince us that there really is a prompter in there, putting them through their paces in a First World War play entitled Archie's Return. Of course, their efforts to become legitimate thespians founder when they try to synthesise the drama with their stock material, culminating in the aforementioned waiter-on-elastic routine. At the end of their day nothing has changed, and they are back in their vertical bed singing their ridiculous song.
The 70-minute show occasionally, but not often, goes as long as twenty seconds without a laugh; the idiocy never lets up, be it in the ludicrous death-in-the-trenches ditty "Bunty's Chips Are Down" or the bug-eyed McColl literally putting his head through a fully laden drinks tray (leading to the awesomely corny line, "I never knew the waiter wore glasses"). Connoisseurs of consummate silliness will find no better fare than this.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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