Any assessment of the best character acts of recent years – Colin Hoult’s Anna Mann, Zoë Coombs Marr’s Dave, Ciarán Dowd’s Don Rodolfo – must include in its top tier Mr Swallow, the excitable alter ego of comedian Nick Mohammed. For years, the character has operated in “best kept secret” territory for comedygoers, with his bumptious, boffin-ish solo shows alternating with stage spectaculars – about Houdini, Dracula and so on – co-starring put-upon sidekicks Jonathan and Mr Goldsworth. Now, two new shows featuring the character are upon us: A Christmas Carol-ish, in which the no-filter northern impresario gives us his take on Dickens, Santa and festive tradition; and The Very Best and Worst of Mr Swallow, touring from March.
Not much appears to have changed for Mr Swallow – but plenty has for Mohammed, who’s gone from highly regarded live act and under-the-radar screen performer to Emmy-nominated star of the Apple TV phenomenon Ted Lasso. It’s fun to speculate what that might mean, not just for the comic, but for his character act. The pipeline from stage to TV studio isn’t especially well greased right now for character comedy: none of the above acts have broken out on telly. (Don Rodolfo got a pilot.) Might Mohammed’s newfound stardom smooth his alter ego’s path, as with Alan Partridge, Count Arthur Strong and others before him, to the small screen? And would that be a good thing?
You can easily imagine screen versions of Mr Swallow’s hilariously overreaching stage shows, in which he interposes his gossiping and his ego between great stories and their successful telling. Yes, they major in upending theatrical convention – but so do The Play That Goes Wrong crew, and their work flitted seamlessly into the nation’s living rooms. This latest show is a fine addition to Mr Swallow’s CV, an attempt to tell Victorian England’s most famous Christmas tale that flounders at resistance from the Dickens estate (“is it because I’m a man of colour?!”) then collapses entirely into a malfunctioning fantasia of backstage battles, singing reindeer and mix-and-match seasonal myth.
Its pleasures are many. One is simply to see the old team reassemble: Mohammed as attention-seeking man-child Mr Swallow, David Elms as his long-suffering business partner Mr Goldsworth, and the great Kieran Hodgson as meek and smiley Jonathan, here cast as Rudolf Hess, the inappropriately named red-nosed reindeer.
A welcome and incongruous new addition finds Miranda star Sarah Hadland playing out-of-work musicals diva Rochelle. (“She’s like a female Des O’Connor” / “Before he died” / “Just before he died.”) Rochelle perches stage-right, looking for opportunities to perform songs from her Christmas album. When the opportunity arises, she does not – for fans of bizarre comedy – disappoint.
The story, such as it is, traces Mr Swallow’s sharp-elbowed journey through the short-circuiting Dickens, Santa and nativity stories, and towards some kind of – well, it can’t be redemption, can it? “I’m not going to redeem myself live on stage every night,” squeals Swallow. “It’s a family show!” His Santa is a Grinch, obliged to deliver presents to billions of children and wishing it were only five. There’s a nativity scene to cherish, featuring Mary, Joseph and a Scouse midwife armed only with Berocca. One choice moment finds Mr Swallow struggling to conceal his ignorance of the words to Silent Night, and at another, we have fun watching Hodgson try to open an envelope using only his hooves.
Add lots of flipping back and forward between time frames (last week in rehearsals; onstage right now; 10 minutes after the show finishes), justified with reference to the Dickens original, and you’ve got a dizzying 80 minutes of festive delight. I could easily see it filling the Morecambe and Wise slot on Christmas Day telly – but how much more fun for comedygoers that, Emmy awards notwithstanding, Mohammed is still delivering these festive gifts directly to us.
A Christmas Carol-ish … is at Soho theatre, London, until 23 December. The Very Best and Worst of Mr Swallow is on tour, 26 March-14 May.