Walking into the Oxford Playhouse on this especially rainy and overcast evening to watch the new wartime musical Radio Times, one could easily imagine themselves damp-nylon-stocking-clad and gas-mask at the ready for an ensuing air-raid. The atmosphere was one of vintage good-cheer and Englishness above all things; all I could think was: Nanny Clayton would LOVE this.
That’s not to say that I felt excluded from the buzz of fond wartime-recollection. It was almost a bit of an honour, being allowed into this world I had only gained spectator entry through tongue-wagging ‘back in my days’ from the old dears at weddings and Christmas. The staff all wore green steel helmets, which, although maybe a bit gimmicky, added to the anticipation of the show. Entry to the audience, then, was disappointing: the set was average – nothing particularly impressive technically but practical and fairly believable. The first scene didn’t start with a great deal of pizzazz, but it introduced the style of tongue-in-cheek, deliberately over-acted comedy that couches the entirety of the play.
I found the beginning half of the action a little taxing, as it was such a different style of humour to the unapologetically politically-minded, often out-and-proud dirty tastes of Ayckbourn or Mamet. I had to leave my inquisitive theatre-goer persona behind as it soon became apparent that you can’t get much more from Radio Times than what you see on the surface. But then I thought, as I found myself getting overly emotionally invested in a ridiculously jazzy performance of ‘Hey Little Hen’, what’s wrong with the surface? Must you dig and dig to find a meaning to every play? Perhaps it’s best to just sit back and let the infectious music wash over you, and hey, maybe even laugh so loud at so-bad-they’re-funny jokes that you actually get embarrassed for yourself.
At first it felt as though the actors (in particular Gary Wilmot) had to beg for laughs and this led to one or two ‘pause for laugh’ awkward silences. I was aware of this tension throughout the show but it was far more muted once the full force of the musicality of the piece was made evident. Noel Gay and Jared Ashe outdid themselves with excellent harmonies, musicianship and choreography. It is unclear as to why Sara Crowe was chosen as the female lead: her voice was annoying at best, but her acting saved her for the most part.
Overall then, I would rate this three stars. It has a competent plot and writing and outstanding musicality but there are a few little comedic and casting glitches. There were moments of brilliance (my favourite regarding a multiple-accented retelling of ‘the three little pigs’ by a toff-turned-welshman-turned-scotsman-turned-cornishman-turned-woman), and moments where I thought eek, that was a bit painful. The audience, I believe, were an essential part of the play’s success and atmosphere: reminiscence being the essence of the musical. As the couple sitting next to me commented, adorably getting out their stash of Werther’s Originals during the interval, “It’s like being back in the bomb-shelter with the wireless on”.
*** (Three stars)
PHOTO/ Derby Theatre