James Hurn is on his first visit to The Epstein theatre with his One Man, Many Voices show, celebrating over 60 years of Hancock’s Half Hour theatre having had a sell-out tour in 2016/17.
James is an actor and impressionist and now script writer performing a brand-new programme including one classic episode of 1950s ‘light entertainment’ radio programme Hancock’s Half Hour and two episodes he has written himself in the same style as the show’s original writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson.
James is the voice of the whole cast. He recreates not just the accents but the personalities of Tony Hancock, Sidney James, Hattie Jacques, Bill Kerr and Kenneth Williams.
The stage has an old-fashioned radio microphone stand, a coat stand and a high wooden chair holding a black Bakerlite telephone. We go to blackout and the lights go up on a young Tony Hancock, bringing a spontaneous round of applause from the middle-aged audience. He cuts a lonely figure. Hurn personifies the character of Tony Hancock bringing such a lifelike performance that it is obvious his research goes far beyond interest in doing an impression. He mesmerises in the role with only his characters for company as he launches into the first of three half hour radio shows.
Billed as ‘bringing to life the classic days of radio comedy’, he switches seamlessly line by line from one character to the next with enough facial expression to recognise each iconic star of the day as they rapidly appear. The repartee and wit bounce from cockney Sid James to southerner Hancock then to Bill Kerr who grew up in Australia with interjections by a gloriously high-pitched Hattie Jacques. His Kenneth Williams was superb, complete with trademark sneer and schoolboy innuendo.
Recorded sound effects are perfectly cued. Hurn captures the Hancock style in all three pieces so unless you were a ‘Half Hour’ buff you wouldn’t know which of the three is the original and I’m not going to spoil the surprise. His concentration is absolute, as is his timing. The comedy is by nature of the material dated. More of a huh huh than a laugh out loud although there were some highly comic moments. That is Hurn’s skill. He manages in one of the pieces to bring the comedy up to date while simultaneously maintaining the rhythm and style of the genre. Clever stuff.
Hurn is a rare talent and no one can fault his attention to detail. He has a reservoir of episodes made clear by the fact that the three shows performed, inserted on a sheet into the programme, were different to the ones billed. There lies the problem. There is a reason the shows were thirty minutes and three in a row is a lot for an audience to take without change of pace or setting. Die-hards will disagree I’m sure but it’s a niche audience. The iconic actors were of a particular and much more comically restricted if not altogether innocent era. You can see where this style of writing gave rise to the popularity of innuendo. All are dead, and unless brought up on ‘Carry on’ movies this will struggle to reach a younger public. Having said that it’s worth going just to experience the brilliance of Hurn as he skilfully plays with the audience, never dropping his persona of Hancock in his heyday.
It would have been good to see the real Hurn at the end, just to acknowledge he was playing a role but he’s too far gone for that. Like the enthusiastic audience I just want to applaud him. Go to see something different and live before he is snapped up by television.
Reviewer - Barbara Sherlock
on - 29/7/18