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Dick Barton Special Agent

Phil Willmott
Coliseum Theatre, Oldham
(2008)

production photo

A year before Ian Fleming created James Bond, the last series of fifteen-minute episodes of Dick Barton Special Agent was broadcast on BBC radio. Oldham Coliseum's latest production revives the popular post-war clean-cut hero in a spoof adaptation written by Phil Willmott.

On a set designed by Alison Heffernan that looks like a giant 1940s radio set, the evil Baron Scarheart, played with relish by Simeon Truby, reveals his elaborate plan for the disposal of his enemy Dick Barton, who is currently tied up over a nasty-looking circular saw. Of course Barton escapes, and a chase begins between London and Berlin involving a seedy night club, a seductive female enemy agent, a Dick Barton double, villains with striped jerseys and bags with 'swag' written on them and lots of songs and innuendo.

It can be quite a stretch to translate a 15-minute radio programme to a two-hour stage show, and the cracks in the conversion process are very obvious. The show consists of a series of comic set pieces rather loosely tied together with a plot that varies between tenuous and totally absent. The parody goes way beyond affectionate ribbing to out-and-out ridicule of the all-too-perfect lead character and tortuous plots, which can get a bit wearing when maintained over the full length of the play.

Having said that, there are some very good, funny comic set pieces performed well by this cast, and some very clever and funny songs that set new lyrics to well-known tunes from opera to musicals to pop; there are other scenes that are a bit like the sort of comedy practised by children's TV presenters. Some of the sexual innuendo makes Carry On Dick look subtle and sophisticated in comparison, getting at least as much mileage from the hero's first name as the Turpin film.

Truby portrays a perfect cartoon villain which makes a great opening scene, but such an extreme caricature is too flimsy to remain interesting for the length of the play and soon becomes irritating. Justin Brett gets very close to pulling off the dual roles of Barton and his faithful working class sidekick (as he tells us over and over again) Snowy. Ally Holmes manages to look perfect both as the dark, mysterious honey trap spy from Berlin and the upper-class English girl. Keiran Buckeridge gives an outstanding performance as the BBC announcer and many other parts, including German club performer Helga; it is a pity we didn't see more of him. Matt Connor is excellent as Scottish sidekick Jock, and David Westbrook fills in many of the other parts very well.

Music is played live by all of the actors, which is always impressive when it works, as it does here, and gives a great live, ensemble feel to the show. The quality of the microphone sound is variable (at least it was in the circle; it would no doubt sound different in different parts of the theatre) making the words of Holmes's first song completely unintelligible — quite a problem for a comic song. It is debatable whether microphones should be necessary at all in a place of this size.

There is plenty in this show to enjoy: the songs are great and there are gags to make you laugh and groan. However there is also quite a bit to make you cringe and with so little story to carry it through it feels like sketch after sketch with basically the same premise stretched far beyond the playing time it can reasonably sustain. As a shorter piece, it would have worked much better. The constant asides of each character telling us how ridiculous their characters are are funny at first but, sixty years too late for satire, after a while they seem like an arrogant and sneering put-downs of those unsophisticated people of the 1940s for putting up with this nonsense (as opposed to our more sophisticated modern TV schedules, perhaps).

Running until 7th June

Reviewer: David Chadderton