NEVER TRY THIS AT HOME
The REP Studio, Birmingham, Monday 3rd March, 2014
Told By An Idiot and writer Carl Grose’s new play takes an affectionate if irreverent look at the bygone golden age of Saturday morning television for children. The play takes the format of a retrospective TV programme, “Looking Back (Together)” which dredges up long-cancelled series Shushi (basically TISWAS by another name) The series was pulled, host Niall Ashdown explains, following the live transmission of some disturbing content – our interest is piqued. As well as actors in 70s clobber running around spouting silly catchphrases, there is drama here, a dark undercurrent – some of it due to the relationships of the characters and a lot of it stemming from the ethos of the era. And so, the show’s only female (the always marvellous Petra Massey of Spymonkey renown) is the butt of a lot of the jokes and subject to physical abuse and harassment at the end of a rubber mallet. Okorie Chukwu plays an ardent fan, invariably picked to be put in the stocks and pelted with pies, his name repeatedly mangled and mocked. (The cast use their real names but I hope not their real personalities!)
As well as triggering nostalgia for my younger days, the play is very funny, often in that post-modern way of holding up something we (now) regard as offensive, and we laugh, ironically or not as the case may be. There is also some fun poked at those who pick apart social mores of the past and get offended on behalf of others. One scene in particular involves a buck-toothed Korean butler and an astounding portrayal of a black woman that takes your breath away (with laughter rather than outrage). Petra Massey’s vocal skills and comic timing are matched, if not exceeded by her physical comedy.
This is silliness of the highest order, at times exhilarating, at others uncomfortable, but never short of hilarious. Stephen Harper is Shushi’s lead presenter, cynically going through the motions. Ged Simmons is the show’s producer, pushing the boundaries. In a delicious scene, the two phone-in to prank call rival show, Wake Up And Smell The Sunshine, hosted by Petra Massey in a Noel Edmonds beard; the Dionysian excesses of TISWAS pitted against the staid Apollonian order of Swap Shop. There is a just about perfect Cheggers-a-like by Dudley Rees, who also gives us a cracker of a Frank Carson. Many of the nods and nudges will be lost on those in the audience with the misfortune of being born too late to have seen these programmes but nevertheless the skits are still extremely funny.
One by one, Niall Ashdown interviews those involved in Shushi, inviting them to look back (together). These interviews give the play structure but they are also daft and satirical in themselves. This kind of nostalgic programme over-dramatises the trivial and (“Coming up next week, another crazy gang: the Khmer Rouge!”) trivialises the serious. Niall Ashdown is more than the show’s straight man or anchor. He is the contact with the audience, fielding heckles and warming us up. That the people in the front seats are issued plastic ponchos gives you an idea of how the custard pies and the buckets of water fly around. One particular pie fight in slow motion is a thing of beauty. That the scenes are linked with blasts of Eve of Destruction suggests we are witnessing a civilisation in decline.
The play ends with a riotous celebration, an orgy of flan-flinging in a fast-moving sequence of clips from the series: Nobby’s Tool Time, Kick A Vicar… It’s the funniest 90 minutes I’ve enjoyed in a long time. Whatever your age or experience of TISWAS, this is a joyous piece of theatre, performed by skilful clowns and directed to heights of brilliance by Paul Hunter. It is an evening of unalloyed bliss. I bloody loved it.