Dick Barton – Special Agent

May 29 2014 | By More

✭✭✭✭✩   Spiffing entertainment

Church Hill Theatre
Wed 28 – Sat 31 May 2014
Review by Hugh Simpson

Knowingly amusing and reassuringly filthy, Edinburgh People’s Theatre’s Dick Barton – Special Agent provides a breathlessly diverting evening.

Kyle Sutherland and Niloo-Far Khan in EPT's 2014 production of Dick Barton - Special Agent. Photo © Rob Fuller

Kyle Sutherland and Niloo-Far Khan. Photo © Rob Fuller

Phil Willmott’s 1998 musical adaptation of the vintage tea-time wireless show is undoubtedly a parody rather than a recreation.

Dick Barton must stop the evil Baron Scarheart from poisoning Britain’s tea supplies with a potent cannabis called Slunk. But Dick has been captured in Berlin by femme fatale Marta Heartburn ….

The plot is largely irrelevant (and entirely ludicrous). Anyone with fond memories of the original radio series may be a little disappointed, as this is definitely a send-up, however affectionate. It comes closer in tone to that other old radio favourite Round The Horne, not only evoking that programme’s own frequent secret agent parodies, but also displaying a love of innuendo. There is also a cameo from a pair of spies eerily reminiscent of Julian and Sandy.

The presence of some well-known musical numbers, often with rewritten lyrics, added to the constant double entendres and somewhat camp air takes the whole thing close to pantomime – albeit a pantomime definitely far from child-friendly, being slanted towards the more adult audience. What is heartening is that there is nothing cynical about it. Instead, the whole performance is suffused with a good-natured relish of the parade of absurdities taking place that is thoroughly infectious.

Ronnie Millar is a spiffingly decent Barton, but really shines when called upon to play Dick’s salt-of-the-earth sidekick Snowy impersonating his boss (do keep up), especially in a crosstalk routine with Scott Braidwood’s gleefully evil Baron Scarheart that has just the right level of pace and energy.

One of the best things about the show is its speed. Director Iain Fraser has done extremely well to create a unified and satisfactory whole out of what could have come across as a disjointed series of sketches.

“delivering her lines at ridiculous speed while remaining intelligible”

The parade of short scenes could easily become wearing, but delay caused by scene changes is kept to a minimum, with everything being held together by Graham Bell’s tremendous BBC Announcer. As well as being extremely funny, he manages to strike exactly the right balance between being knowingly arch and maintaining the audience’s investment in the story. It is this difficult balancing act – spoofing something that would, particularly to modern ears, sound like a parody anyway – which is largely successful.

The full cast of EPT’s Dick Barton – Special Agent. Photo © Rob Fuller

The full cast of EPT’s Dick Barton – Special Agent. Photo © Rob Fuller

Routines and musical numbers never outstay their welcome and the show as a whole never drags. The double entendres could perhaps do with some variation, but if the pace slackens at times, there is always a comic turn as fine as Lyzzie Dell’s Lady Laxington or Niloo-Far Khan’s Daphne Fritters to tighten it up again.

Khan is particularly impressive, whether in delivering her lines at ridiculous speed while remaining intelligible, or leading a tap dance. Her romantic vocal duet with Kyle Sutherland (Dick’s Scottish sidekick Jock) on A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square is also extremely touching.

Sutherland brings a seemingly effortless comic presence and likeability to his role, traits that are shared by Mairi Beaver’s Marta. Perhaps she is never quite evil enough to convince as a femme fatale but impresses as an all-round entertainer.

The large cast are well deployed in a number of roles, with Gordon Braidwood (Stanley Fritters, government minister in charge of tea) and Lindsay Aitken (Marta’s cabaret colleague Helga) providing good comic support. Stewart Robertson and Tom Mulhall savour their brief turn as the pair of camp spies Rodger and Wilco which provides the evening’s filthiest moment.

Anne Mackenzie’s musical accompaniment is sensitive and accomplished, while the set and lighting are efficient and well judged.

If you like exploding sausages, glove puppets and an inexplicably-accented Old Etonian singing ‘Stress und Trauma’ to the tune of Nessun Dorma, this is the show for you. If you don’t, that is probably because you have not had the experience – there cannot be many other shows where you will get such a combination. This is great entertainment, genuinely funny and highly recommended.

Running time 2 hours including interval
Run ends Saturday 31 May 2014
Evenings Wed – Fri 7.30 pm, Matinee Sat 2.30 pm
Church Hill Theatre, 33a Morningside Road, EH10 4DR
Full details from http://www.ept.org.uk/

The full cast of EPT's Dick Barton - Special Agent. Photo © Rob Fuller

The full cast of EPT’s Dick Barton – Special Agent. Photo © Rob Fuller

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