Saturday, October 31, 2015

'The Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London Town' at the St James Theatre, 30th October 2015

I'm going to chalk this down as something I just don't 'get'. The Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London was originally written by Spike Milligan as a one-off TV special that would reunite him with fellow Goons Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe. It was never recorded, but later reworked as a Two Ronnies sketch. 

Now it returns as a staged 'radio play', adapted by Lee Moone and directed by Dirk Maggs. Sometime in the 90s I was given a cassette copy of Maggs' award winning Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel, reworking 'lost' Marx brothers Radio shows for a modern audience. I loved it - a freewheeling comedy improv that seemed to move at a million miles a minute in surreal directions. 

The Phantom Raspberry Blower thus comes with a fine comedy pedigree. Even better, the show is performed by a seriously talented cast: David Boyle, Lee Moone, Steve Elias, James Petherick and Jodie Jacobs, all of whom make this incredibly difficult performance task look effortless. 

Very loosely plotted, the show follows a comedy Jack-the-Ripper-a-like as he terrorises the aristocracy of Victorian London with a series of wet raspberries. First the Lord Mayor's butler is struck dumb by a particularly fierce "Twffttttt", then an elderly dowager and eventually the Prime Minister. As he works his way inexorably up the social ladder his ultimate target proves to be Queen Victoria, the prospect of her being raspberried possibly bringing down the British Empire.

It is, to say the least, silly. The humour is lies in typically Milligan-esque word games, puns and segues into surreal confusion. Problem is, though it frequently raised a smile it never properly made me laugh. This, I think, is a generational thing. Simply, Spike Milligan's humour just doesn't do anything for me. I've always been reticent about admitting this - most of my favourite comedians mark The Goon Show as the Mozart of British comedy but despite my best efforts to appreciate it, the humour leaves me cold.

Not helping is that the show runs for two hours (including an interval). That's an awful lot of time for a show that relies on you finding the blowing of raspberries downright hilarious. Last night was even a charity night for the Prince's Trust, resulting in a room packed with BBC luminaries, all in a good-natured mood and wanting to enjoy themselves. But soon the laughter became restrained, even the best gags drawing polite titters rather than belly laughs. By the time the second half rocked around there were some newly vacant seats, I suppose figuring they'd showed their support and could go home.

Leaving mid-way through was perhaps a little unfair of them. It's a testament to the skill of the cast that their Herculean efforts to wring every single drop of comedy from the script. It's entirely on their backs that this even remotely succeeds; each throwing every performative trick and comedy beat they can into the pot. 

Even this occasionally got a bit dull, at which point I began watching the amazingly talented Jessica Bowles doing live sound effects. It's like a little magic show on stage right, clopping coconut shells together; scrunching up paper; tramping on gravel and playing weird musical instruments. 

It's not that The Phantom Raspberry Blower... is particularly unenjoyable - but it's extremely dated comedy that will appeal primarily to an older audiences with fond memories of Spike Milligan and the Goons. If you're a fan then you'll be delighted: this is a slick, personable and friendly production. If not, then, like me, this will leave you cold.


The Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London Town is at the St James Theatre until 1st November, then on tour around the country. Tickets here.

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