Phil Willmott and Croydon's tiny Warehouse Theatre have struck a seam of gold with their Dick Barton series. For our younger readers, the star of the BBC's first daily radio serial, private investigator and sometime special agent Dick Barton, appeared in 711 episodes between 1946 and 1951. With his two best mates (Jock Anderson and Snowy White) by his side and a slew of crime-busting gadgets that would make Dick Tracy (or even James Bond) green with envy, Dick managed to get into (and eventually out of) some pretty tight spots. Even in its day, I suspect, the square-jawed public school ex-commando and his working class menials represented an England that never was.
Willmott's first stage take on the character opened in December 1998 to much acclaim, a success which was to be repeated a year later with the second episode. This third endeavour replicates the same format in a style that can best be described as a straight-faced spoof on post-war British attitudes, BBC radio serials of the day, and a liberal smattering of 'Allo, Allo' humour. There are some somewhat bizarre musical interludes, which range from Mozart to "Underneath the Bamboo Tree", to many of which Willmott has added some creditable and extremely amusing lyrics.
I wouldn't dream of burdening you with a detailed exposition of the plot in Tango of Terror (I lost track of it well before the interval), save to say that it concerns an organisation called EFIL ( Evil Foreigners in London), a femme fatale (played by Kate Pinell), a Latino villain from Bermondsey called Juan El Bigglesworth (Duncan Wisby), and the largest cinema organ in the world. That's the sort of evening it is - joyful and ludicrous, it defies the audience not to enjoy itself
The writing is sharp, witty and (for the most part) focused although, in reality, this is a one-joke entertainment and perhaps a few minutes could have been shaved by director Ted Craig. Working in a space the size of a postage stamp and with a budget clearly little more than the weekly shop at Tesco's, Craig and his designer Russell Craig have managed to create a genuine impression of the era that's affectionately and nostalgically sent up. The direction is disciplined, and the outstanding cast manage to resist the almost overwhelming temptation (given the dialogue) to corpse. Choreographer Mitch Sebastian has also made the most of the evening with some lively musical staging.
I lost count of the number of characters who drop in and out of the play. However many there are, they're all played by a cast of six who also supply the musical accompaniment. The performers are all so accomplished that they really deserve individual mention. However, I was particularly impressed by Joanna Brooks as Barton's lovelorn 'char', Mrs Horrocks. This is a characterisation of which the late, great, Irene Handel, would have been proud. Kit Benjamin, with his cut-glass vowels, as the BBC announcer, and as the dim-witted Snowy White also hits the mark, as does George Asprey as a suitably straight-laced Dick and Darrell Brockis as Jock.