Liverpool’s theatres seem to be in a retrospective frame of mind at present. The Everyman has just announced a return to its first permanent repertory ensemble since the 1970s. Meanwhile the Playhouse has gone even further back to its source, recalling the days when the building opened in 1866 as the Star Theatre of Varieties, the most opulent music hall on Merseyside.
The art of variety – a crowd-pleasing parade of singers, comedians and bizarre speciality acts – is still alive and well; both in television talent contests and in its seasonal guise as pantomime. The torch-bearers of traditional panto, such as Berwick Kaler in York and Kenneth Alan Taylor in Nottingham, are still performing routines that Dan Leno perfected more than 150 years ago.
Michael Wynne’s new entertainment is pantomime by any other name; being based on a dysfunctional surrogate family whose domestic arrangements are falling around their ears. In place of the dame there is a rotund music-hall chairman, a fount of alliterative innuendo, whose attempt to keep the audience’s interest in his threadbare reservoir of talent becomes increasingly desperate. His chief frustration is the ineptitude of his stooge, Arthur Crown, a terminally unfunny comic with the baffling catchphrase: “Has anyone seen my coal scuttle?” There’s even a baddie, in the form of a top-hatted speculator who keeps materialising from nowhere and has a devilish scheme to close the theatre down and turn it into a cut-price sportswear outlet.
As a Liverpudlian, Wynne had the privilege of being able to consult the world’s preeminent veteran of the variety age, Ken Dodd, who offered two pieces of advice: “Don’t make it educational and don’t make it boring”. Wynne obliges on both counts – I learned very little, and the turns are based on an unbroken sequence of music-hall chestnuts – My Old Man, Down at the Old Bull and Bush, The Boy I Love is Up in the Gallery – whose lyrics you find you know despite having no recollection of ever purposefully committing them to memory.
Some of the backstage exposition is a little thin, and it’s hard to be sure if all of the stickier moments with the scenery are entirely intentional. But Philip Wilson’s production is full of winning performances, not least Michael Starke’s over-stressed chairman, whose free-associative introductions become increasingly erratic: “Please give a big hand for the everlasting, effervescent, elderly, excellent, earthenware …”
Danny O’Brien’s repeated attempts to come up with a suitable act for the hapless Arthur Crown – the Human Billiard Table, anyone? – leads you to wonder if there is any beginning to his talents. And yet there really was a juggler named Paul Cinquevalli whose impression of a billiard table was such a favourite of King George V that he appeared in the first royal variety performance in 1912. Proof, if it were needed that you really cannot make this stuff up.
- At Liverpool Playhouse until 14 January. Box office: 0151 709 4776.