A Fistful of Barton

Kit Benjamin and Philip Ives
Warehouse Theatre, Croydon

Fistful of Barton publicity graphic

The Croydon time machine is taking its annual trip back to 1950 for this year's new episode of its long-running adventure serial. This time its intrepid hero Dick, with sidekicks Jock and Snowy, are out in a remote valley in the Wild West, their mission to outwit the fiends who are trying to destabilise the world's economy by flooding the world market with gold.

It is a lively evening of derring-do with Matt Bannister, new to the role of Dick, making a suave Special Agent and doubling as the arch enemy he is trying to track down. Jock is Jonathan Busy and Snowy Ben Toller; also newcomers but they have all caught the spirit of the piece which is the latest in a series that has gained a loyal and enthusiastic audience. There are more than a dozen songs with real tunes (lyrics by Ives, music by Benjamin), some nimble tripping and a feast of high spirits that sends its audience out on a happy high.

Dick Barton, Special Agent, originally thought up by Norman Collins in 1946 (seven years before Fleming created James Bond) was the eponymous hero of a nightly BBC radio series written by Edward J. Mason and Geoffrey Webb that each weekday at 6.45 had schoolboys of every age and sex glued to the family wireless waiting for its high speed signature tune and their 15-minute dose of wild and totally improbable adventure.

The original was already a parody of boy's paper adventure stories. Whatever impossible situation Dick was trapped in he always found some incredible means of escape, the catchphrase for the series being 'with one bound he was free!' The Warehouse musical reincarnations began in 1998 and there have been six before this one plus two with 'Young' Dick Barton so it has become something of a not-to-be-missed Warehouse tradition.

This pastiche of a parody, like the original, is intended as a great piece of fun. If you enter the spirit of the show you can't help but love it. If you can't, then you will probably dismiss it as childish rubbish: you would probably have hated the original too and been delighted when it made way to give the almost new The Archers its evening slot.

The plummy-voiced BBC announcer is still there, formal in dinner jacket and bow tie - unlike those audiences at home you get to see him. He is played by Ryan Gibb who also doubles as a Sheriff and as Barton's' controller Colonel Gardner. Annabelle Brown is the colonel's lovely secretary Jean as well as a sweet country girl whose father insists she is a boy and who gets abducted by the villain, while from Robert Maskell we get a high camp Red Indian (this is 1950, long before Political Correctness) who turns out to be a well known US political figure, now known to be gay, outrageously personified. And as if that was not enough, he also plays Dick's bustlingly bossy housekeeper. Every time someone goes off stage they seem to reappear as someone else. I've never seen so many quick changes done so rapidly (and a reliable source tells me they do it without the help of any dressers).

The plot is not really up to much this year, it lacks a little in thrilling exploits and clever solutions, but then plot is not really the point, and we do get our hero buried up to his neck in sand, nearly blown up in a dynamited mine and trying to fly a plane without any idea of how to operate the controls.

Laura O'Connell's colourful scenery is as boldly and simply drawn as this bevy of odd-ball characters and Ted Craig's production moves along at a spanking pace. It must be a nostalgia fest for those who have childhood memories of the radio originals. I'm sure you will find some of them among the audience but you don't have to be that ancient to find this show fun. Get into the right spirit and A Fistful of Barton is a riot!

Run ends 20th February 2011

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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