Our veteran arts critic, BELLA BARTOCK, donned her galoshes and cagoule to brave the elements for a magnificent reunion with an old-school British hero. And quite a few Dick jokes
I’m sure, like me, you roll your eyeballs every time you hear some self-conscious luvvie use the phrase, “The show must go on.”
I have to admit, there were times in the second act of Dick Barton Special Agent and the Carnival of Chaos, after the sun had set last night and the purple dark clouds gathered overhead that I really wished that the show would not go on. But I am truly glad and fortunate that the tireless cast and brilliant crew from Theatre Workshop Coulsdon pluckily pushed on to the soaked end.
For there I was, in the middle of a field in Coulsdon, in August, wearing winter woolies and covered up in a cagoule while sitting through a tropical monsoon, as there on stage, a pair of performers sang You’ll Never Walk Alone.
Oh, the irony… “As you walk, through the storm, hold your head up high…”
The double act of Richard Lloyd as Snowy White (more cockernee than Danny Dyer) and Lisa Lloyd as Mrs Snodgers (a char lady for the ages) can certainly hold their heads up, as the heaviest of the rain fell during their song and dance act. The sound of rain drops thudding into microphones and the distraction of such hostile conditions might have fazed lesser performers.
But as anyone who has been fortunate to see previous Theatre Workshop Coulsdon performances knows, you can bank on the Lloyds.
Towards the end of the number, the fellow feeling of the audience, soggy pizza boxes on their laps, saw some join in with the actors.
It might not have been quite The Kop at Anfield, but there was a sense of real emotion. “Walk on through the wind, Walk on through the rain… Walk on, walk on, With hope in your heart.”
It’s six years since TWC last brought wireless hero Dick Barton to the stage at Coulsdon Manor, a production then, too, affected by the weather conditions of the time. They should not leave it so long in future…
Dick Barton Special Agent was a post-war sensation, drawing audiences of 15million around their radio sets every evening as the strains of its Devil’s Gallop theme tune crackled over the airwaves. After all, there wasn’t anything on the telly.
In more recent, less innocent times, the adventures and scrapes of the ex-commando and his plucky chums Jock Anderson and Snowy White have appeared to be at turns quaint, absurd and also ripe for parody. Croydon’s long lost and lamented Warehouse Theatre – which stood close to where Boxpark is today – used it as the essence for a successful series of musical comedies, staging nine different adventures, and TW Coulsdon adopted this for Slaves of the Sultan in 2017 and now The Carnival of Chaos, also brilliantly written by Richard Lloyd.
I do have one mild rebuke for Mr Lloyd: I don’t believe I have heard so many Dick jokes in the course of a performance since the time I saw Max Miller at the Palladium.
But there were one or two well-aimed Croydon barbs, too, and they all drew laughs from the decent-sized audience.
So here’s the skinny: Barton’s in a bit of a jam. Well, marmalade. MI5 seeks his help in a case of national importance, with supplies of the breakfast staple under threat from a dastardly plot by Johnny Foreigner… or so they’d like us to think.
But first Dick, played by the suave and debonair Joe Wilson, must save trusty Snowy from a fate worse than death, and all because of the fiendish plot of “fiend in female form” Bogdana Bendova (Lucy-Ann Bird). Barton does, though, have the very willing assistance of his other working-class sidekick, Jock (Peter Bird).
“You know the bonobos, Mr Barton?”
“Don’t think I do. Are they from Cheltenham?” Bing-tish!
Snowy does go ape, with an itch to scratch through the rest of the piece, as Dick and the gang in turn encounter Col Fffoulkes, with three Fs (Rory Curnock Cook), and Leni Fuchs, one F (the one-time darling of the Afrika Korps, played by Hannah Montgomery). and Countessa Bianca di Scalzo (Indianna Scorziello).
It soon transpires that they have to contend with the Crayfish twins (geddit?), Ronnie and Wedgie (John East and Mike Brown), East End gangsters dominated by their dear ol’ mum, Queenie (Anya Destiney).
All of whom, for one reason or another, may or may not be after the fortune of marmalade heiress Tiggy Zesty-Pell (Nina Amos), whose part in the stability of a nation still enduring post-war rationing has even drawn the attention of the Ministry of Food, whose Latin motto on the stage backdrop neatly translates as “Meat and Two Veg”.
The ministry’s Sir Percy Blithe-Natterjack (Chris Argles) and his uncivil servant Jimmy Perkin-Warbeck (Arlo Woodford) have to recruit the help of Tiggy’s aunt, Lady Mildred (Penny Payne).
Suffice to say, the piece fairly romps along, with the best use of a revolving stage that I’ve seen since a marvellous immersive evening being part of Cabaret at the Playhouse Theatre (highly recommend it!).
At the centre of it all at Coulsdon Manor is not Eddie Redmayne but the equally delish Bruce Montgomery as the drole BBC continuity announcer, a sort of Alvar Liddell for the 21st Century, coolly holding the whole thing together while all about him is in danger of descending into chaos.
With just single lines of script, Montgomery does much of the heavy lifting in terms of scene-setting.
Here’s just one example: “And so we leave the malodorous malfeasants of the Mile End Road plotting their dastardly crime spree… Next morning, across the metropolis, Dick Barton, Special Agent, arrives in Soho – Bohemian honeypot of jazz clubs, clip joints and bottle parties – to pay a call on the Contessa Bianca Di Scalzo: doe-eyed doyenne of the fledgling London yoga scene…”.
You get the drift.
I can’t really say much more, without being in breach of the Official Secrets Act, or just giving away the plot.
What I can say is that if you have an opportunity to see Dick Barton Special Agent and the Carnival of Chaos before the run ends on Saturday, grasp it with all the firm determination of an old-school hero with a stiff upper lip.
And don’t forget to be very British about it all, and take a brolly…
- The Theatre Workshop Coulsdon’s production of Dick Barton Special Agent and the Carnival of Chaos is on in the open air at the Coulsdon Manor Hotel tonight, tomorrow and Saturday (August 5), starting at 7.45pm. Tickets can be booked here
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