Count Arthur Strong: “Somebody UpThere Licks Me” at the New Alexandra Theatre Birmingham 17 April 2015
The Count is one of those comic creations like Alan Partridge or David Brent; you either get him or you don’t. There was no doubt that a packed house at the Alex last night was firmly in the former camp and was duly rewarded with an evening of inspired lunacy.
In case you haven’t come across him in his long-running radio show or more recent TV sitcom, Count Arthur is a faded star from the Golden Age of Variety currently adrift in a modern world at odds with his 1950’s ideas of what entertainment should be. He has had a long and undistinguished career which has involved bit parts in TV shows, such as a milkman in “Dixon of Dock Green”, a memory man act and a stint as a children’s entertainer (“His mother said I was ‘beyond belief’. I’m putting that on the posters.”) He always has a grandiose plan and it never works, much to his perpetual astonishment. Luckily, there’s always someone else to blame.
The character has links to the rich heritage of English comedy, although at the same time he is in no way derivative or cliched. He has the trilby and glasses of Harry Worth, for example, but none of that character’s bumbling amiability. Like Tommy Cooper, he watches events disintegrate around him, but whereas Cooper remains a victim, bemused and helpless, Arthur becomes increasingly incensed as things spiral out of his control.
There are no observational jokes, as such, and none of the catchphrases that some of his contemporaries rely on to cue laughter and applause. The comedy is almost entirely driven by the character and his inherent foibles. You get the feeling that, as with Barry Humphries and Dame Edna Everage, what you’re seeing goes beyond mere performance and that his creator, Steve Delaney, actually becomes the Count for the two hours that the show lasts.
Delaney’s stock in trade is wordplay. There is an evident joy in the music and flexibility of language that is reminiscent of some of Ronnie Barker’s solo spots on “The Two Ronnies”, and the precision with which The Count chooses idiom and colloquialism makes him wholly believable. This is reflected in deliriously funny malapropisms, such as when “gastric” events require “gastric measures”, inspired word association (his attempt to list every variety of nut is going well until he reaches Brazil and sidetracks himself into a catalogue of South American countries) and surreal manglings of the two, such as his version of the creation story, which involves Alan and Evelyn and their pet snake in the Garden of Edam, the last leading to a consideration of his favourite sandwich cheese. Given the prevalent style of many current stand-up routines, it is to Delaney’s credit that the show is almost entirely smut-free (there is one mild innuendo) and totally devoid of potentially offensive language. He doesn’t need to be vulgar or coarse, because he is, quite simply, very funny.
There are also moments when the comedy transcends simple impersonation, pitch perfect though it is, and becomes almost existential. Arthur’s one attempt to tell a “proper” joke, for example, goes something like this: “A man walks into the doctor’s, and the doctor says, ‘Pull yourself together! Now get off home and stop wasting my time!’” Then there’s the moment when, half way through an ill-advised ventriloquist act, it begins to dawn on Arthur that the monkey on the end of his arm is a puppet and not a real orang-utan. Expressions of confusion, disbelief and eventual realisation chase each other across his face. At the end of this sequence he turns triumphantly to the audience and crows, “Fooled you!” although whether he means fooled us into thinking the monkey was real or fooled us into thinking he himself did is not entirely clear.
One thing that is clear is that we are in the hands of a comic talent dangerously close to genius. Highlights are almost too numerous to list, but the Count’s duet with torch singer Renee (“direct from Las Vegas (cough) Amusement Arcade in Southport”), gamely played by Malcolm de Tinsel in something approaching drag, the tribute to veteran actor Rex Harris (sic) and the aforementioned vent act reduced us to tears of laughter.
Despite Count Arthur’s back story, this is the kind of show that could actually have saved variety, and if you have ever laughed at Monty Python, Morecambe and Wise or Mr Pastry, you should do yourself a favour and snap up tickets for one of the remaining dates of the tour. It really is that good.