At the Drop of a Hippopotamus: An Evening of Flanders and Swann

Created by Tim FitzHigham and Duncan Walsh Atkins
King's Head Theatre
(2005)

Publicity graphic cartoon

The musical partnership of Flanders and Swann was once described as "Falstaff singing duets with Hamlet"; referring to gregarious delivery of Flanders, compared with the introspection of Swann. As the modern day Flanders, Tim FitzHigham has shades of the effervescent Boris Johnson while Duncan Atkins Walsh is reminiscent of a laid-back, slightly disdainful Angus Deayton.

They wisely decided not to simply parody the originals. Instead, for much of the evening, they played themselves - gently sniping at each other's talents while introducing us to the songs of their witty forbears who were at their peak in the Fifties and early Sixties. The original pair's appeal lay largely in their manner of poking fun at the British capacity for self-effacement, and in their struggle to come to terms with modern post-war living.

Flanders died in 1975 and Swann in 1994 and their popularity has somewhat waned since then. The songs are very firmly wedged in the Fifties and Sixties so I was interested to see how this revue would appeal to today's audience. FitzHigham and Atkins Walsh had the foresight to introduce some current satire: Tony Blair (who was compared to Ronald McDonald), the Hutton report and the wrong sort of leaves on the railway line all get a mention.

The two have, however, paid careful attention to the original format where the interaction with the audience was as important as the songs themselves. From the moment FitzHigham strides onto the stage, he doesn't lose contact with his audience, often demanding (and getting) participation in some of the choruses. At times though, the show was slightly too grounded in the Fifties. For example, we hear of the modern pair's amazement that peers of the realm who were watching one of their earlier shows enthusiastically joined in the audience participation. This anecdote might have worked well half a century ago, but I'm not sure a modern audience would be surprised (or grateful!) at their lordships' generosity in joining in with the great unwashed.

A large section of the evening is given over to Flanders and Swann's animal songs, for which the duo are chiefly remembered. "I'm a Gnu" and the "Hippopotamus Song" ("Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud") got the biggest laughs.

The King's Head was a suitably intimate venue. The seating was arranged for an evening of cabaret and the red silk trimmings reflected the Fifties atmosphere.

FitzHigham sustains an energetic performance. He gives a particularly good rendition of "Have some Madeira, M'dear" as the lascivious roué intent on luring a 17 year old into bed. However, he is capable of changing the pace and mood during the slower songs, such as "The Sloth". In keeping with the original, Atkins Walsh's role is more of the straight guy. On occasion though, he shows he can give as good as he gets.

An enjoyable couple of hours for those who remember the Fifties and Sixties, and for those who don't - a nostalgic introduction to an era gone by.

Reviewer: Bronagh Taggart