A sure sign that it's Christmas in Croydon is that Dick Barton is again playing at the Warehouse Theatre. This is now the fourth appearance of the 1940's BBC radio super-hero at this intimate little venue and the first not to be written by the theatre's own super-hero, Phil Willmott. And it shows.
Duncan Wisbey and Stefan Bednarczyk's take on the class-ridden, stiff-upper-lip culture of post-war Britain is less than convincing - Dick's rakishly placed trilby is now looking distinctly worn, while his trademark gabardine Mac is more than a little grubby.
The previous Barton episodes were joyous straight-faced spoofs, densely (if incomprehensibly) plotted and with razor sharp writing. Dick Barton - The Flight of the Phoenix, on the other hand, is little more than over-extended revue sketches in which Dick is reduced to the role of anchorman in a series of encounters with a colourfully bizarre collection of characters. Readers who can recall the BBC's glorious 'Round the Horne' from the 1960's will know what I mean.
This in itself would be fine, if only the structure, and concept, was more clearly focussed. As it stands, The Flight of the Phoenix is too knowing, too sly, and far too aware of its own parody. Indeed, this production, under Ted Craig's direction, gives the impression of itself being a parody of the previous shows.
Plot-wise (as if it mattered), the piece concerns our hero being framed for contravening BBC guidelines and imprisoned at Dartmoor, escaping and exposing a villain whose plan to control the country appears to have something to do with the BBC sound effects department. The settings are dour and the performances patchy.
Adam Morris as Dick comes nowhere near the square-jawed private investigator, playing him much in the style of comedian Russ Abbot. By far the best of the bunch (from a cast of six who portray 30 characters, as well as accompanying themselves in the musical numbers!) is Kit Benjamin. He's a veteran of the previous productions and is brilliant as the straight-faced, dinner-jacketed BBC announcer (amongst other parts). He alone seems to understand what this sort of theatre is (or should be) all about. Darrell Brockis as Jock and William Oxenborrow as Snowy White and a villainous Oscar Wilde-a-like, lend some creditable support.
The Flight of the Phoenix does have its moments and, as an antidote to traditional pantos, it works. There are some amusing musical numbers, set with new lyrics to traditional airs and wittily staged by Mitch Sebastian. The audience seemed to enjoy this slight evening, and, as a theatre-literate lady from Beckenham reminded me, it's only a bit of fun, isn't it?
- Stephen Gilchrist