The Lowry, Salford
George Formby was an unlikely superstar. The former jockey was illiterate; dependent upon others to write his material and to manage his career and could not even tune his ukulele.
Formby written by Ewan Wardrop (who is also the sole actor) demonstrates how skill as a performer and the uncanny ability to capture the spirit of the ordinary man in the street enables George to succeed against the odds.
The show benefits from imaginative and sensitive direction from Ed Hughes who co-devised the play. Hughes makes excellent use of shadows to cast enormous atmospheric silhouettes and allow props to emerge out of the darkness.
Although the biography is largely played for comedic value there are some very moving sequences. Curiously these are played with the characters in reflective silence - Formby humbly listening to his father's music hall routine or his increasingly frail wife hearing George declare his debt to her in his final radio broadcast.
The biographical detail in the script does not slow the rapid pace of the show or detract from the humour. Although Wardrop does not hide the flaws in his characters his sympathetic approach ensures that their humanity is clear. Beryl could easily have become the clichéd battleaxe wife if Wardrop had not shown the insecurities under the harsh surface.
Wardrop takes his cheeky style from Formby's songs that were full of double entendres. His wife Beryl, a dancer, is described as having a marvellous pair of clogs. Wardrop constantly breaks the fourth wall between himself and the audience. In a wonderful sequence a German solider, communicating via subtitled cue cards, struggles to comprehend the saucy lyrics he can overhear from Formby's act. One of the cards reads: ‘Too Many Props'. The writing is affectionately knowing but never cynical.
Wardrop gives a tremendous performance. He sings full versions (not stingy excerpts) of the songs live. Rather than limit himself to enacting the wide range of characters vocally he brings them to life physically with a fluid, loose limbed style. This slightly exaggerated cartoon style works perfectly for showing both clog dances and well-known characters such as Arthur Askey.
Formby overcomes many limitations – a potentially static one actor show, material that may be past its use by date – to deliver a hugely entertaining show that is simply ‘Champion.'
- Dave Cunningham