Round the Horne, Waterside Theatre, Aylesbury ★★

Original reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

Round the Horne remains a milestone in radio comedy history. The 1960s sketch series fronted by Kenneth Horne was, on the face of it, merely a rebadged version of its predecessor, Beyond our Ken, which ran for six years. But the name change came about when writer Eric Merriman departed, to be replaced by Barry Took and Marty Feldman. And it is this era which this tour celebrates, billing itself as a “50th anniversary tour”.

The original series was recorded, as audience radio comedies still are, with a couple of microphone stands which performers would approach when it was their turn to speak. This structure is used for the recreation, actors playing each of the performers who would then assume their own characters in a series of sketches.

The difficulty is that while there is a frisson when watching a radio recording, there is little to no atmosphere here. There is no attempt to warm up the audience beforehand, save for a plea to turn off mobile phones by Alan Booty, in character as Round the Horne’s announcer Douglas Smith. And so a number of Took and Feldman’s sketches, which raise the roof when their bad puns and innuendo are heard on a BBC Radio 4 Extra repeat, fall flat in the live theatre.

As the titular presenter, Julian Howard McDowell’s Kenneth Horne captures the dry, laconic tones of Kenneth Horne, but missing is the sense of a man who effortlessly commanded deference from a cast which otherwise had a tendency to anarchy. Far better is the embodiment of that spirit of anarchy in cast member Kenneth Williams (as embodied by Colin Elmer). Elmer delivers a fine impression of Williams’ multitude of voices, from his snide nasal drawl to his imperious tones and every shade in between.

Williams was always on the verge of rebelling against what we would proclaim were weak scripts with poor jokes. Of course, such tirades were crafted by Took and Feldman as a means of allowing themselves to deflect criticism of their sketches, but it was Williams’ feigned outrage that sold the concept. Elmer channels Williams effectively in these situations, just as he does with the recurring characters J. Peasemold Gruntfuttock and Rambling Syd Rumpo. Both suffer from the show’s leaden direction, though, and the lack of any great reaction from the audience dampens the affection for these sketches to the extent that Williams’ rants start to feel justified.

In a show which stitches together sketches from Round the Horne’s four radio series, it is camp duo Julian and Sandy who get both the most appearances and the best audience reactions. Elmer and Alex Scott Fairley (playing Williams’s double act partner, Hugh Paddick) bring the duo’s polari slang to life, illustrating why these two extremely camp gay men, created at a time when homosexuality was illegal, have remained firm favourites in the five decades since. Their sketches remain the only points in the show where the audience laughter rises to the levels to be heard on radio.

In each half-hour edition of the radio show, the sketches would be supplemented by musical performances from the Fraser Hayes Four and the BBC Light Orchestra. Neither are recreated here, resulting in each 45-minute “episode” either side of the interval feeling far longer. And with the lack of excitement and fun that the archive episodes still evoke, one might be better off with the BBC Radio iPlayer than with this lacklustre facsimile.