Young Dick Barton: The Devil Wears Tweed

Duncan Wisbey and Stefan Bednarczyk.
Warehouse Theatre Company
Warehouse Theatre, Croydon
(2008)

Production photo

Was Hitler ever mistaken for Charlie Chaplin? Such a misidentification is just one of the consciously contrived plot-cogs in this strained and misfiring parody of a 1940s BBC secret agent series.

With little but charm, a trilby and a German named Gunther to aid him, Young Dick Barton traverses the globe in order to prevent the eponymous, enchanted tweed suit falling into the hands of a motley of suitors: the devil, a pop-song composer and Donald Bradman all crave its power-lending qualities.

At the interval, with the gags monotone, the action banal (despite the crazed scenarios) and the song lyrics muffled by the accompanying live orchestra, I was tempted to wedge my head in my wine glass, and there hibernate throughout the second half.

Thankfully, my head didn't fit, for the second act, chiefly owing to it being accelerated and slightly more vivacious, was a marked improvement. Yet, as Barton - played rather meekly by Jeremy Barlow (surely an English spy must ooze a modicum of gumption?) - negotiates a plot-web which visits cartoonish renderings of Arabia, Hollywood and Australia, it becomes apparent that Wisbey's writing is unerringly one-dimensional. One could announce the punch-lines several minutes before their scheduled arrival. If only one could work such a trick with buses or in-laws!

Between 1946 and 1951 Dick Barton became somewhat of radio cult-figure. Perhaps feeding off national anxieties in the wake of the Second World War, his reticent and well-mannered defence of England's pastures caught public attention. In Wisbey's appropriation, the tone of the writing, given current political instabilities, is confusing: what strike as rudely simplified sketches of cultures and nations - Arabs are portrayed as nonsensical, maniacal reactionaries - may well be satirical, deconstructive parodies of the play's radio source. Without contextual familiarity, it is difficult to judge whether Wisbey's renderings are crass and outmoded, or a clever exposé of earlier prejudices and stereotypes.

Wisbey himself, playing a medley of characters, is polytonal, animated and expressively dexterous - his imitation, as Hitler, of a Charlie Chaplin walk, which descends into a bold, spasmodic military gait, is memorable. Musical director Stefan Bednarcyzk, as Irving Berlin, is convincing and rugged as the vexed musician with one eye on a Mexican-Scottish singer (who turns out to be Arabic) and another on the prized, elusive apparel. Elizabeth Park, as said racially-confused singer, offers spirited acting and accomplished vocals.

There is a decent scene wherein Dick, his obese portable phone in tow, crawls across the desert playing the chords of his own distress on a trumpet. Another choice moment is Dick being provided a piece of unmarked sandpaper as a map of the desert.

As Dick's bi-gendered, Arabic Juliet, Elizabeth Park asks us to "feel my longing to belong". Given the scale of the play's hyperbolic characterization and the glaring, self-identified artifice of the narrative, it is a nigh impossible cognitive trick to afford this cartoonish bunch sentience. Such departure from naturalism is not an error per se, but when the novelty of the comedic devices (inflated jingoism, self-reflexive authorial interventions, and dodgy accents) begins to dwindle, we are left with an unreal, largely unfunny, contextually contingent, atavistic spoof.

Simply put: if you render your characters and narrative unbelievable, thus restricting any emotional or affectionate connections between stage and spectator, you'd better hope the resulting caricatures and superficial antics can carry the burden.

There were too many of the author's pet-idiosyncrasies on display (punning and semantic misunderstandings). William Faulkner advised that a writer should always kill their darlings (the phrases or lines they are most fond of in their own work). Wisbey kills none. The resulting authorial indulgence, if the comedy doesn't earn your favour, becomes a dramaturgical ailment.

Berlin, the composer bent on penning the greatest love ballad ever, has inspiration bequeathed upon him courtesy of a Don Bradman hook-shot. Berlin advises: 'Sincerity, that's what's needed folks'. Following his tutelage, it is only right to describe Young Dick Barton: The Devil Wears Tweed as a misfiring, often irksome attempt at intelligent farce.

Reviewer: Ben Aitken