When I was growing up there were two shows that got people going. One was That Was The Week That Was, parties shuddered to halt each Saturday when it came on air. The other was Round the Horne – a more private affair, heard in the comfort of your own room but no less publicly poured over, adulated and adored.

Cut to 40 years on, and here we are in the less than salubrious Venue in Leicester Square as if time-blown back into the Beeb's Lower Regent Street recording studio, audience squashed hugger mugger up against performers in shared bucolic licence. As the characters roll out – not just the by now well worn `ducky' favourites Julian and Sandy but the priceless Dame Celia Molestrangler and Binkie Huckaback (in `homage' to every trembling PR syllable uttered in British movies circa 1940s-60s by the likes of Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard), audience shrieks get shriekier.

It's a love-in, no doubt about it and a well deserved one. Round the Horne...revisited 2 celebrates the national institution that was, that is British humour, in all its verbal inventiveness and eccentricity.

Yes, you can see the line that stretches back from Little Britain through Monty Python (with Comedy Store deviations along the way) to Round the Horne. And beyond. What surprises is that so much of the original, albeit occasionally alarmingly unPC material, by Barry Took, Marty Feldman, and Johnnie Mortimer, lovingly revamped by the sole remaining script-writer, Brian Cooke should stand up so well. As indeed the whole conceit of theatricalising the radio show format. What price next a theatrical version of H-h-Hancock's Half Hour? There's a whole back catalogue of BBC golden oldies to explore.

For the present, one can only celebrate the cause that has brought the copper bottomed quartet assembled by Cooke and director Michael Kingsbury into our midst. Jonathan Rigby (Kenneth Horne), Charles Armstrong (Douglas Smith), Robin Sebastian (nostril-flaring Kenneth Williams), Nigel Harrison (Hugh Paddick) and the astoundingly talented South African born Kate Brown (Betty Marsden) don't just look and sound like the originals. That would be too banal without the professionalism they also bring to it – a swagger that perfectly mixes nostalgia and familiarity with nano-second comic timing and a delicious awareness of the programme's send-up of the thing itself – microphoned fabrication and sound cues with a life of their own. Post-modernism, in effect, long before the word had even been invented. Whoever said revue was dead?

- Carole Woddis


NOTE: The following FOUR-STAR review dates from December 2004, when this production’s ‘Christmas special’.

If you haven’t made their acquaintance already, Christmas is an excellent time to meet Dame Celia Molestrangler, Rambling Syd Rumpo, that bona pair of ex-chorus boys Julian and Sandy, and a BBC newsreader who gamely impersonates the whole of Olde London Town, full of hansom cabs and ugly cabbies, in a punning adaptation of Oliver Twist.

For almost a year, a strange thing has been happening at The Venue, a pleasant little theatre yards from Leicester Square: a handful of actors have been impersonating radio performers whose voices were familiar 40 years ago. And audiences can’t get enough of them. The original radio stars were Betty Marsden, Kenneth Williams, Hugh Paddick and Douglas Smith, all presided over with avuncular urbanity by Kenneth Horne, who played himself. The Venue does convincing duty as the BBC’s Paris Studio, with a set that consists of little more than microphones, a bank of sound effects and a flashing “Applause” light.

Jonathan Rigby captures Horne’s tone precisely; he is the Establishment bloke who has wandered into a coven of creatures with bewitched voices whose every other word means something else. Robin Sebastian brays for all the world like Williams, Kate Brown and Nigel Harrison recreate Marsden and Paddick in their roles as ageing thesps Charles and Fiona to a tee, forever caught in a world of overheated emotion and elongated vowels, while Charles Armstrong as Smith remains a dignified announcer, even when voicing the wand in Cinderella: “Swish, swish”.

The scripts remain fresh. Young theatregoers, who weren’t around in the Sixties and haven’t become addicted to tapes of the live broadcasts, will still enjoy the innuendoes and double entendres. More mature audience members can be spotted closing their eyes to be transported back to a period before reality television, when England won the World Cup and Mary Quant was the queen of fashion. Of the four Round the Horne writers - Marty Feldman, Barry Took, Johnnie Mortimer and Brian Cooke - only Cooke survives. This stage show has been put together by him, mainly from original scripts.

There’s an innocence about the rudeness, written at a time when the word “smut” might still have been in circulation. Many of the double meanings are really suggestive nonsense: the naughtiness is in the ear of the listener when Rambling Syd (that rustic horror of a folk warbler played by Williams) makes “the bogles on your possets stand on end”.

Nevertheless, some of the language used by Julian and Sandy - when homosexual acts between men remained illegal - would have been recognised by gays and soon became current in schools and offices all over the country. And, of course, not all the jokes were innocent, although it’s said that BBC chiefs of the time were sometimes mystified by the ribald laughter which greeted seemingly straightforward lines.

The Christmas special runs until 22 January 2005 to be followed by a new revisit to Round the Horne. Bona.

- Heather Neill


NOTE: The following FOUR-STAR review dates from January 2004, when this production first opened at The Venue, Leicester Square.

Through no fault of my own but thanks to a press release that gave the wrong start time, I arrived late for Round the Horne...Revisited, the stage version of a cult 1960s radio series, and so experienced the first act largely as the original audience to these half-hour comedy sketch shows would have: on the tannoy in the bar. It worked very well, even there. Maybe, I thought, especially there, where it’s not a communal theatrical event but a private, intimate one, as radio does when it gives you the sense that it’s speaking just to you.

The subversive and hilarious pleasure of Round the Horne is that, below its innocent and light-hearted surface, it teems with dubious innuendo and outrageous double meaning, thus amplifying the sense of being “in” on the joke for the listener, then as now. But it’s not quite so private an affair when others who are also rocking with laughter surround you.

I joined that throng for the second act and was relieved to discover that adaptor/writer Brian Cooke – the sole surviving member of the original writing team that also included Marty Feldman, Barry Took and Johnnie Mortimer – and director Michael Kingsbury have left well alone. Revisited is staged as if for the radio. In the midst of the endless film-to-stage adaptations that have to find a different idiom, often musical, to effect the transition, Cooke and Kingsbury have simply, and wittily, transported us back to the Paris Recording Studios (now alas no more on Lower Regent Street), where the shows used to be recorded, and turned us into a studio audience.

Cooke has raided the scripts of some 20 of the 66 programmes that were made, and added roughly 30% fresh material of his own, to give us two new episodes on either side of the interval.

So, on a set (by Liz Cooke) that faithfully recreates a radio studio, complete with applause light signal for the audience and a sound effects desk (manned by Tim Molyneux), the cast sit with scripts in hand, leaping forward to the microphones to perform their bits, under the dry, urbane stewardship of Jonathan Rigby’s Kenneth Horne.

The line-up are the always-irrepressible Kenneth Williams (as played here by Robin Sebastian, pictured), Hugh Paddick (Nigel Harrison), Betty Marsden (Kate Brown) and Douglas Smith (Charles Armstrong), and the characters they create include Mr Gruntfuttock, Dame Celia Molestrangler, Binky Huckaback, Judy Coolibah, and of course, Julian and Sandy – the outrageously camp pair who, in the days before homosexuality was decriminalised, could act as lawyers here and declare: “We’ve got a criminal practice that takes up most of our time”.

Round the Horne...Revisited, tried out at the fringe White Bear Theatre in Kennington in October 2003, looks like it’ll give The Venue the hit that eluded it with the shortest-lived show of last year, Money to Burn.

- Mark Shenton