The programme for this “capturevating” new kidnap comedy by the theatrical producer and pantomime king Paul Elliott carries a vote of thanks to Lord Archer, the novelist and former Conservative party chairman, “for being such a good sport” with this production.
This is because the plot, such as it is, hinges on a misfired attempt to kidnap the cavalier peer in order to raise a ransom and secure the future of a small retirement home for old theatrical performers – Stollberg Hall carries evocative hints of Stoll Moss Empires and the famous Salberg producing family – near Bognor Regis in Sussex.
The first plan is to kidnap Des O'Connor and one spends a little time (well, about five seconds) contemplating who would be most missed in the celebrity scheme of things. But Plan B is activated by a bunch of old troupers pulling on face masks of Tony Blair, Prince Charles, Mrs Thatcher and Elvis Presley before losing the plot, such as it was, and offering meekly to help the police with their enquiries.
The policeman who turns up is played by Peter Byrne, formerly Detective Sergeant Andy Crawford in Dixon of Dock Green before the flood, so his chirpy announcement of “Good Evening All” (once the catchphrase of Jack Warner as the oldest bobby on the beat) gains a mild titter among the nonagenarians in the audience.
I admire Paul Elliott and it's brave of him to compile this affectionate series of old thespian tableaux. A weekly royalty is paid from the production to the Combined Theatrical Charities. Some of it is funny, much of it is true. But it's fairly thin gruel if placed beside one of the most underrated of all Noel Coward’s late plays, Waiting in the Wings, which does what this play is trying to do, but does it with oodles more wit, compassion, poignancy and skill.
The situation, and the home, is saved by a sudden announcement of a big lottery win in Australia, a general knees-up and the resolution of the ventriloquist played by Ray Alan to put away his little Willie (yes, I’m afraid the line recurs all too frequently) and perhaps invent a new character called something like Lord Charles…
Other characters include the former high priest of children’s television Brian Cant as a frail old stalwart with a perilously perched toupe; Ken Morley (Reg Holdsworth in Coronation Street) as an irrepressible cheeky chappie; Gorden Kaye (Rene in Allo!, Allo!) as a gently wry, Alan Bennett-style support player; and Sue Hodge (Mimi in Allo!,Allo!) as a chirrupy blonde nurse, not to mention such well-preserved survivors as Joan Savage, Tony Adams and vertically challenged (and Snow White regular) Mike Edmonds.