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Fool Britannia

Dan Lees & Neil Frost
The Establishment
Gosforth Civic Theatre

Rather like Tommy Cooper, the two actors from The Establishment seem to make us laugh effortlessly and with the simplest of actions or words. An illusion of course. On stage, nothing works without effort, albeit at times that effort is invisible.Thus an entire piece is built round the word ‘Shakespeare’, uttered in various ways and with various theatrical gestures lampooning the whole cultural canon the man attracts. At another instance, we the audience are asked to repeat the basically unfunny line "I am the travelling minstrel" in a way that reduces us to paroxysms of laugher.

I last saw Dan Lees and Neil Frost with their 2017 show Eton Mess, a gloriously anarchic piece of theatre sending up every aspect Britain’s upper classes / ruling elite—admittedly an easy target for satire, as proven by novelists down the years. Yet it was still the most inventively funny and gloriously silly thing I’d seen on a small stage in years.

And for much of the time, Fool Britannia runs it a close second. The setting here is a modern school and the teaching of British history. From the opening moments when the flat top of the teacher’s mortar slides off, we are all into it. The actors invite us to indulge various moments of audience participation, all carried out without any of the awkwardness we normally feel when asked to join in. Our first involvement is bombarding the actors with ping-pong balls.

Elsewhere, we are invited by St George’s dragon to join the singing of a nonsensical chorus or repeatedly speak out loud the ever-idiotic stages of a scientific theory (“So, just to recap!” as the teacher says again and again). We do so with gusto.

The one-hour piece takes us through early Britain, the Romans, the Vikings and Elizabethan England. All are given the madcap treatment, along with ludicrous costumes, beards and wigs. Try the Roman senator whose accent seems to stray from sarf London to the Coliseum as he stands observing Hadrian’s Wall.

The sense is that two performances are never quite the same and that these actors set challenges for and play games with one another even as the sketches are being played out—a sign of practitioners at the top of their game.

I caught it at the last UK venue before the show whisked off for a month round Australia. Well—someone has to do it.

It played at the Gosforth Civic, an attractive, newish, 60-seater studio on the outskirts of Newcastle and not the easiest location to make a theatre flourish. It’s run with enthusiasm and commitment (and happily some funding from Arts Council England, Newcastle Council and others) by a trust called Liberdade, chosen this year by the Co-operative Society as one of its local causes.

Back briefly to the show. Splendid stuff, if not quite with the razor sharp edge of Eton Mess. It does lose its way slightly towards the end when the structure creaks a bit. It also comes to rely overmuch for laughs on the novelty of teachers swearing and right at the death risks losing its beautiful sense of innocence when the actors galumph around snorting coke (not the real stuff I assume…).

That kind of thing would never do for Tommy Cooper.

Peter Mortimer