Callow wears two extraordinary wigs, first as Toby Magsman, the florid mutton-whiskered showman who narrates the story of Mr Chops, a dwarf who wins the lottery and enters society (the hair-piece has a sort of hedge ledge at the back); and secondly as Dr Marigold, a curly-headed travelling cheapjack, or salesman (Harpo Marx comes to mind), who loses his tormented daughter and replaces her with a deaf and dumb girl.
Both performance are considerable feats of vocal athleticism, not least in savouring the glorious orotund language, “W”s for “V”s (as in “aggrawating temper” and “wermilion-painted cart”) and clangorously dropped aitches, even if Callow sometimes gets his voices muddled.
Garland and designer Christopher Woods bedeck the stage with huge red swags of curtain, piles of bric-a-brac, fading posters and a lighting plot by Chahine Yavroyan that is blatantly mood-setting. Nor does Callow shy away from the sentiment of a dying child spying the perfect cemetery, or the last words of the minute mogul who reclaims happiness and penury.
Chops is a bad-tempered dwarf, too, whose beloved fat woman of Norfolk ran off with a Red Indian, while the bad-tempered wife of Dr Marigold – whom he wooed at an upstairs window while on the stump in Ipswich – beats their child and drags her by the hair. Poor old Marigold wilts with the death of child, wife and dog all within five minutes of stage time.
His replacement Sophy is tutored to womanhood, finds love with another mute and goes off to China on missionary work. Less impressive than the sickly heart-warming finale to this story is the vivid social detail of life on the road in a coster’s cart, while the scenes of Chops’ wine-fuelled elevation have the hilarious visual flourish of a Gillray cartoon.
The tales have shared qualities of outdoor settings around the countryside, theatrical presentation of “character” and a head-on collision with humanity in all forms and deformities. Callow gives generously in pumping them up, and once he’s found the right pace and relaxed into the roles, he’ll be offering one of the most flavoursome, unusual seasonal shows in town.