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Formby – Royal & Derngate Theatres, Northampton

Writer &co-deviser: Ewan Wardrop

Director &co-deviser: Ed Hughes

Reviewer: Sue Dixon


Formby Royal and Derngate NorthamptonGeorge Formby was one of the most unlikely (yet highly paid) stars of his day. Born in Wigan he was a household name from the 1930s to his death in 1961.

This one man show by Ewan Wardrop will certainly contribute to his enduring charm and appeal; one that has managed to span the generations. In his day, he was admired by music hall audiences, radio presenters and film goers around the world. His saucy lyrics and cheeky delivery are still being discovered by audiences today. Wardrop cleverly combines biographical story telling with musical tributes, which capture the very essence of this mischievous performer; despite not really looking like him physically. Indeed as he first appears on stage it is difficult to suspend the disbelief. But that dissipates early in the first half, as he employs his considerable skills as dancer and musician to draw the audience into the life and times of George Formby (junior).

Maybe his ukulele playing is not of the very highest calibre but that is masked, for the most part, by his pace of delivery and reasonably accurate enactment of Formby’s whole persona and mischievous innuendo. Anyone from Lancashire, as I am, has to look and listen beyond the less than pure Wigan accent. It is the song performances that are stronger and really bring the past alive.

The set is a simple and static one – an armchair in the foreground, a hat stand in the background, from which all the main characters in Formby’s life come to life. There is clever use of shadows and a crisp direction from Ed Hughes that makes simple props emblematic of real people: a feather boa for the affectations of Beryl being the most memorable. He slips from one character to the other with ease, not straining for accurate impersonations (although few would know if they were accurate) but depicting the essence of the person and the relationship to Formby’s life.

Through a blend of physical theatre and simple narrative the theatrical tale of Formby’s sometimes moving and difficult life is told sympathetically as well as humorously. We see snippets of Formby entertaining the troops on the front line, clog dancing in the music halls and gain an insight into the uncomfortable relationship he had with his forceful wife Beryl. It was her tenacity as his manager that pushed him into the limelight – he somewhat reluctantly followed his father onto the stage, after initially training as a jockey. All this led to his career in films, radio and stage, negotiated by the determined and dogged Beryl (some have even said bullying).

The song list is a selection of Formby’s greatest hits including ‘Mr Wu’, ‘When I’m Cleaning Windows’ and of course ‘Leaning on a Lampost’. Wardrop, thankfully, does whole songs, rather than extracts and snippets, paying true homage to the music of Formby.

I wasn’t too sure about the wisdom of inviting members of the audience on stage to join him in a ukulele ensemble; it could easily backfire. But on this occasion we were treated to a delightful one woman encore from a member of the audience

It is a gentle and affectionate celebration of one of Britain’s greatest performers, with touching insights into an ordinary man who turned out to have an extraordinary talent.


Reviewed on 4 October 2013


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