Richard Edmond reviews Ken Dodd and the The School for Scandal at Malvern Festival Theatres.
Ken Dodd worked like a Trojan in a five-hour gig and rose at the end of it to take a standing ovation.
“Thank you for coming along,” he said, “ You’ll probably be reported missing by now, but seriously, I love you all”.
“And we love you, Ken” came the reply as the most iconic clown in the stand-up business disappeared from view behind a slow curtain.
Doddy is now 85, “I’m knocking on...oh yes, I’ve outlived most of my audiences”,he quipped, before providing brief roster of comic luminaries with whom he has worked.
“Tommy Cooper,”, he said, “Arthur Askey, Sid Field, Rob Wilton, Hylda Baker, and Cynthia: (“...she knows ya know...”), Frank Randle, Max Miller”.
His audience listened avidly – these men came from the Golden Age of British comedy, they were the end-of-the pier entertainers, the twice-nightly music hall stalwarts and when Doddy spoke of them with deep affection, you got a lump in your throat.
Some of the audience, perhaps Doddy’s age, had seen them. It was a comforting thought in an increasingly alien universe, where old values are eroded by the hour.
But Ken Dodd’s greatest triumph is to have been born into his own era.
He belongs to the working-class social strata which buys from the corner shop, works a scrap cart around the streets of Knotty Ash, and takes a weekly bath in front of the coal fire on Friday nights.
To listen to the world he creates so brilliantly is to have a slice of post-war early 1950s social history, when marriage still was revered, men and women courted before the big day, and you dodged the tax man. All of it handed to you on a plate, with a belly laugh to send it along.
Where TV cynical comics generally rely on four-letter words as a standby gag ( an area about which Doddy was critical in an aloof sort of way), our Ken eschews smut totally, and romps about with an ebullience which comes from another planet altogether, backed up by a female pianist in red high-heeled ankle straps, who switched with ease from the classics to karaoke, and a dashing conjurer, who coped well with sound failure and had some good tricks up his sleeve.
Then Doddy’s back and the patter revs up again.
“Poor, missus.....,” he says to a shadowy “plant” in Row B, “Poor....... . we were so poor, I wasn’t born missus, I was knitted! Me dad was delighted, he grabbed me off the midwife and !threw me up in the air..... then stepped aside...”
After the first ten minutes and throughout the night at regular intervals, and long before Dickie Mint, the cheeky ventriloquist’s doll made a midnight appearance, you find yourself reaching for your inhaler.
But the next gag is hot on the heels of the last one, and you’re wheezing again, wheezing like Doddy himself, now in his famous ankle-length red fur coat “made from 28 moggies, oh yes,” but a man whose breathing is occasionally inhibited with asthma, more obvious now than it used to be.
Yet, consummate professional that he is, even a short cough is used as an explosive exclamation point to point up a gag.
“What was your favourite song when you were courtin’ missus?”(short cough)
“Tears..” comes a voice from the audience.
“What was that..... “Tears”.....I see....that kind of honeymoon was it!” (more coughing)
“My auntie, big woman. Took her to Blackpool, got a phone call on the beach, it’d be around four o’clock...Town Clerk, could you move yer auntie Mr Dodd, we’re trying to get the tide in.... (by this time, we‘d forgotten about the cough as we wheezed anyway).
“How d’you get a fat girl into bed? Piece of cake!” A slight cough, the eyes roll alarmingly, and we’re off into a Doddy version of “Volare” (he sings all old standards).
And you realise this wonderful man can still knock out a number, give or take a bit of fading on the top notes these days.
But the audience was always in the palm of his hand.
If Doddy hadn’t become a theatre performer, he could easily have been another Billy Graham.
I left as the cheers went higher from a packed theatre – people were happy, a lovely sound to hear...long may this comedic master (who scandalously has only an OBE) continue to delight us in his inimitable way.
The School For Scandal
At a time when plays of a debatable quality are given house room in theatres up and down the kingdom and TV is blocked with spurious “talent” shows, focussed always on singers who scream for discographic success, how truly marvellous then it is to see a richly-talented company based at the Theatre Royal Bath bring out an 18th century British classic.
Sheridan’s “School For Scandal”, which opened in 1777, is still referred to as “the last great English comedy”, and it was certainly the most finished product of the English comedy of manners, which arguable began with Congreve’s stylish “The Way of the World”.
The world of the 18th century social elite was composed of several important elements, namely social class, money and style and the latter quality made much else acceptable. Lie, cheat and seduce, and life, or so it was believed, would deliver up its riches, vices which the play’s chief character Joseph Surface, (played here by the richly talented, subtle, Edward Bennett) finds second nature, along with greed, deception and immorality.
Directed with sensitivity and great elegance by Jamie Lloyd, this is an evening to treasure.
Mr Lloyd does not take any particular point-of-view however, and that is a pity.
Apparently we are in spring or summer (I have seen the play set in winter with snow and Xmas songs) yet the seasons are blurred.
This is also a picture of Georgian society on its uppers. Joseph Surface has his creditors while his brother Charles sells off the family portraits to raise a few bob (among them a portrait of the actor-manager David Garrick who, whatever else he was, was certainly not a member of the Surface family tree!) .
We hear of these things but they are not built into the production.
The sets and costumes Soutra Gilmour has created for this comedic jewel are gorgeous - suggesting the sweetness and light of the interiors of the period, and the management of the scene changes is smooth and ticks along without a jarring note, using household servants (beautiful acting all round here) to move things around - a lovely touch.
Maggie Steed is a splendid Mrs Candour, touting the latest scandalous gossip around Bath before the newspapers got it, and I can report faithfully Ms Steed is occasionally marvellous, perfectly matched by Grant Gillespie’s gossipy, painted, over-ripe and equally destructive Sir Benjamin Backbite .
Sir Peter Teazle and his lady, (Susannah Fielding) around whom so much of Sheridan’s play revolves are good.
However, James Laurenson’s Sir Peter seemed unnervingly tentative on occasions, and you feared for Sheridan’s lines, which I have heard spoken with greater clarity than is evident here from several over anxious performers.