Music: Noel Gay
Book: Abi Grant and Alex Armitage
Director: Caroline Leslie
Musical Director: Paul Herbert
Reviewer: Glen Pearce
The Public Reviews Rating:
Seventy years ago the BBC was hard at work broadcasting morale-boosting variety shows to raise the flagging wartime spirit. Twenty years ago those broadcasts were brought to the stage in musical form. Radio Times didn’t run as long as its fellow Noel Gay musical Me And My Girl but now the show is revived as part of a national tour from the Watermill Newbury.
In the underground auditorium of London’s Criterion theatre, the company of Variety Bandwagon are preparing for a live broadcast to America. A mix of jaunty songs and jokes so old they could feature in the Antiques Roadshow, the whole broadcast is designed to provide good clean, wholesome fun for a wartime audience. The only problem is that frontman Sammy Shaw has a slightly different view on wholesome to Aunty Beeb.
Add in a couple of slight sub plots about censorship and a fraught romance and that’s about it. The script itself doesn’t really matter – what the audience are interested in is the recreation of the radio shows of the period.
You can see the punchlines coming a mile off and the songs stand alone as entertainment rather than being truly integrated. And there lies part of the problem – it’s all well-meaning but it seems somewhat flat.
The ensemble works hard, dancing, singing and playing the music live on stage. There’s strong performances from Vivien Carter as Radio Girlfriend Amy Chapman and John Conroy as producer turned star Heathcliffe Bultitude. Carter gives the piece its emotional heart while Conroy provides plenty of wry humour.
Leading the company, Gary Wilmot and Sara Crowe are somewhat more problematic. Both have fine comic timing, with Wilmot in particular revelling in the improvisation opportunities that the routines offer. When it comes to the musical elements, though, things are less successful. Both seem to struggle with the higher registers and give somewhat underpowered performances.
While the comic material is authentic, as a musical the score is not really strong enough to glue the piece together. Numbers such as Run, Rabbit, Run are fun but overall the score feels underpowered. It often feels like the musical numbers are included as an afterthought, rather than truly integrated into the script.
Tom Rogers’ set gives the action an impressive background, taking us backstage at the Criterion Theatre and the attention to period detail is impressive but Philip Gladwell’s lighting is disappointingly one dimensional.
Despite the sense of a need for an energy injection, many in the audience were enthralled by the piece, singing along to the songs and joining in with the jokes. Perhaps it’s a generational thing but for this critic at least it’s hard to see the appeal of reviving this show.
Runs until 27 October and continues to tour
Photo: Robert Day