Thursday, 19 March 2020

THEATRE REVIEW: The Navy Lark - The Epstein Theatre, Liverpool


To people below a certain age, it is largely unknown just how big BBC Radio Comedy was in the 1950s and '60s with many shows attracting huge followings and the stars big names. The production-line stand-ups that fill the current 6.30pm slot on Radio 4 tend to concentrate on political satire of which little is likely to be remembered next year, let alone half a century on.

The Navy Lark was one of the BBC's great radio successes alongside such luminaries as with Hancock and Round The Horne. This harks back to a more gentle time for comedy where the humour was more based on self-deprecation or affectionate ribbing rather than savage satire, sexual explicitness or political attacks. It was also a time where there was much greater deference. The Navy Lark featured amongst others four actors who were either very well-known at the time (in the case of Dennis Price and Leslie Phillips) or who were to go on to become national treasures, certainly in the case of Ronnie Barker and to an extent also with Jon Pertwee. Accordingly, the appeal of this present show is as much a tribute to four great comic talents as it is to the actual radio show itself.

Primrose Productions has done a sterling job not just in bringing back to life an old favourite but in creating excellent impersonations of the original actors. This show will have special meaning to those who remember the likes of Leslie Phillips and Ronnie Barker through their various television and film roles in the '60s and '70s, not forgetting Jon Pertwee who for those who don’t know was the third (and some would say best ever) Dr Who, amongst other notable roles.

The presentation of different characters by the trio of James Hurn, Richard Usher and Mark Earby is done partly by swopping hats, but only partly; a combination of different voices and facial contortions giving a remarkable illusion of different people appearing on stage. Hurn in particular, through hairstyle and trade-mark moustache looked astonishingly like the young Leslie Philips, coupled with a superb vocal impersonation and all the camp mannerisms. However, a stoop, a squint and a throaty accent transformed him into the a very acceptable Jon Pertwee, very much in the mode of Pertwee’s numerous Carry On film cameos around the period The Navy Lark was made.

Richard Usher as Dennis Price was the quintessential ‘straight-man’; as essential part of comedy in that period. Price was a leading comedy film actor in the '50s and would be better known today had alcoholism sadly not brought a premature end but at this time, he was at the height of his powers. Mark Earby was very well cast as Ronnie Barker, not the rotund word-acrobat of the Two Ronnies fame, for which he was to later become so well-known but an unassuming character actor and a very useful addition to a comedy-piece cast.

This production of The Navy Lark is more than just a showcase of three very versatile acting talents; it was nothing short of a labour of love by a trio of devotees to classic BBC radio and to a time when being funny actually meant having to be funny as opposed to swearing, ranting and generally making nasty barbs at others’ expense. It was a more innocent period and in these difficult and cynical times, it is nothing short of wonderful that there is such dedication to keeping the spirit and authenticity of genuine, classic comedy.

Reviewer - John Waterhouse
on - 16/3/20

NB: In line with government advice, please note that productions at The Epstein Theatre and the current tour of The Navy Lark have both been suspended

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