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Formby (tour - Colchester, Mercury Theatre Studio)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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It’s still very much a work-in-progress, but Salida’s production of the new one-man show about the life of the entertainer George Formby (1905-61) already has the nucleus for being something rather good. It’s been co-devised by Ed Hughes and the performer is Ewan Wardrop. He not only manages an excellent lookalike impression of his subject but takes you effortlessly into what for most of us is a vanished world.

That’s the one in which music-hall died, radio lost its crown to television and a bitter couple of world wars were fought. George Formby senior was an established bill-topper before he coughed himself to death and his son had to work hard to emulate him, in more ways than one. First he had his mother’s support, and then that of his ambitious and somewhat over-bearing wife Beryl.

We first meet this lady as Wardrop pulls a boa around his neck and transforms himself with the flick of magenta feathers into a woman who knows what she’s worth – and expects any man she chooses to match if not surpass her. Wardrop has been a dancer, and his tap routines are impeccable – though I would have liked to have seen something of the clog-dancing which apparently was Beryl’s speciality (or is that just nostalgia for Stanley Holden in La fille mal gardée?)

I had the feeling that too much has been crammed into an hour-long show. The story and the material which Hughes and Wardrop have assembled merit a longer play. At the moment it’s presented quite simply with an armchair (which also becomes a car), a workbox and a hat-stand – and there's nothing wrong with that. We hear recordings of both Formbys; could archive film footage perhaps also be included?

The description of the ENSA tour is both funny and moving. As far as Formby’s legendary prowess with the ukelale and banjo is concerned, Wardrop’s strumming tended, even in the Mercury’s Studio, to swamp his vocals. This was a pity, for the lyrics of Formby’s songs are well worth hearing with their stream of subtle (and occasionally not so subtle) double entendres. But the audience did enjoy its final singalong session.


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