To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the corporation, the BBC brought out a double album in 1972 (remember those days of vinyl?) containing two hours of nostalgic clips – mainly radio – from a variety of broadcasts from the 1920s up until the “present day” – which if I recall rightly was Till Death Us Do Part and the Moon landings. I loved that record, and felt from an early age that the Beeb must have played an enormous role during World War Two in boosting morale and keeping spirits high. A major element of this was their cheery comedy and musical wireless shows like ITMA and Bandwagon, and it’s this kind of show that is lovingly resurrected in “Radio Times”. This production, a washed-and-brushed-up version of an original 1990s show, was born last year at the Watermill in Newbury, and is in the early stages of a tour throughout England which I’m sure will keep the home fires burning until Christmas.
I was very uncertain about booking for this show, as on paper (or on computer screen) it didn’t appeal to me that much, save for the fact that it stars Gary Wilmot, who is just about the most reliable name you can have on a stage to guarantee a good time. But I did think it would only appeal to old fogies, would shamelessly wallow in nostalgia, and have twee written through it like a stick of rock. Well, I was completely wrong. It’s a superbly entertaining show, with a funny script, great music and some fun performances.
The show never lets up in its attention to detail, which is a major source of the fun. Even before you go in, the ushers are dressed as ARP wardens, and guide you to your seat with little torches as in the Olden Days. The set itself absolutely conjures up how you would expect a 1940s radio broadcast from the Criterion Theatre to have looked; the costumes and styles are spot-on; and the use of language and comedic delivery capture perfectly those radio stars of the time. An essential element is that rather strange BBC radio comedy hallmark of a posh-voiced announcer interwoven with all the comic activity – pure Round The Horne – and this show kindles that happy memory delightfully.
The whole cast are great. A major secret of its success is having the performers play the instruments as well, a Watermill trick that eliminates that sense of a band segregated at the back somewhere. The Grosvenor Girls, who replicate the Andrews Sisters’ sound brilliantly, not only sing and look good but also play brass and strings. When guest hunk Gary Strong offers to chip in to the musical numbers with his ukelele, you soon understand why they all roll their eyes. And Jeeps the sound engineer creates so many different sound effects with a myriad of props, as well as his own voice, that heaven knows how Christian Edwards, who plays him brilliantly, keeps up with everything that’s going on. He must be utterly exhausted by the end of the show.
Gary Wilmot, as Sammy Shaw, the cheeky star of Victory Bandwagon, is precisely as entertaining as you would expect him to be. He has such an easy, relaxed style; his presence is a reassurance; his every gesture, word, song makes you smile. He is the Olympic Gamesmaker of musical theatre; every household needs a Gary Wilmot to make the day pass more smoothly. Sara Crowe is excellent as his long-suffering girlfriend and co-performer Olive, who elicits some of the sadness out of her songs but a lot of the humour too.
Vivien Carter plays Ann Chapman, the lovely young singer and receiver of the “Dear Girlfriend” letters, and she completely captures the era with an immaculate performance and superb vocals. But arguably the topmost laughs are from John Conroy’s stiff-and-starchy BBC producer Heathcliffe Bultitude whose character, shall we say, endures the biggest journey of the night. It’s a great role and shows off a number of Mr Conroy’s entertaining talents.
There were a couple of minor hitches; a few lines got garbled here and there, and Mrs Chrisparkle felt it was a little overamplified for a theatre as small as the Royal. True, I did occasionally have difficulty deciphering some of Wilf’s lines (the very funny Ben Fox) because his microphone was drowned out by the sound of the musical instruments, especially in the first act. But that’s not what you remember from the evening. You take with you the memory of some wonderfully funny musical numbers – Ali Baba’s Camel, I took my Harp to a Party, for example; you remember how the show created a convincing wartime vibe, and you revel in some first rate performances that made you laugh and smile all the way through. Abi Grant’s book is really funny and well written, and the whole thing is basically a delight. Don’t think that this show is just for Oldies – it’s irresistible entertainment for everyone and I’d definitely recommend it.