Horne A’Plenty

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Horne A’Plenty by Brian Cooke and Johnnie Mortimer – White Bear Theatre, London

More than a decade ago original Round the Horne writer, Brian Cooke, and director Michael Kingsbury brought the much-loved 1960s radio series to the West End. Staged as a live BBC recording, the production was a reminder of a time when radio was at the cutting edge of popular culture, drawing vast audiences every week to BBC comedy shows. It also showed just how particularly subversive Round the Horne was – a mainstream show that was entirely based on expertly gauged innuendo, much of it referring to gay sex which was illegal for most of the time Round the Horne, and its predecessor Beyond Our Ken, were on the air. Now Cooke and Kingsbury are back with a surprise new production based on the fifth series of Round the Horne, cancelled after the sudden death of lead actor Kenneth Horne in 1969.

These scripts, which have never been heard before in any form, are a treat. The cast are masters of mimicry, bringing five well known voices back to life with consummate skill. Everyone deserves a mention. Jonathan Rigby as respectable businessman Horne ( in fact exactly what he was) makes manful attempts to keep the innuendo in check, failing entirely. Robin Sebastian’s Kenneth Williams, driven by eerily accurate gurning, is a crowing delight. Kate Brown as Betty Marsden has some of the funniest lines, as a particularly in the character of confused actress, Thespiana Boot. David Morley Hale as Hugh Paddick swtiches effortlessly from ancient, crusty barrister to raging camp. And Charles Armstrong has a great fun as self-aggrandising BBC announcer, Douglas Smith. There is even an onstage Foley artist, Lucy Sullivan, who slams a tiny door on cue.

The unheard scripts are fascinating. Written in 1969, after the decriminalisation of homosexual acts, they are more direct than previous series. There are new characters too including rattly old puffin Sir Inigo Parchmutter, recounting suggestive cases from his time at the Bar and the Brum Brothers. The latter are an evolution of the famed Julian and Sandy characters. They no longer speak in Polari, the coded gay slang popularised by the show, and for some reason they are now Brummies, but they are very funny and spent much of the time discussing someone called Clint (“Go on, purge yourself! Let it all out!”). It is fascinating to hear new material, still very much in the spirit of the earlier shows, but edging gradually in the direction of the 1970s. Horne A’Plenty is something of a triumph, both an essential social document and an endlessly funny ninety minutes. The audience leaves weak with laughter – Horne A’Plenty clearly deserves a bigger home and a longer run.

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