Up Pompeii – Shaw Theatre, London

Writer: Miles Tredinnick

Director: Barnaby Eaton-Jones

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

The original television version of Up Pompeii, which after a 1969 Comedy Playhouse pilot consisted of just 13 episodes in 1970, has lasted in the British comedy psyche to this day. It s enduring appeal is down almost entirely to Frankie Howerd’s performance of Lurcio, the idle slave around whom all sorts of mayhem whirl, vortex-like.

A film and a couple of specials – even an unsuccessful pilot for a US version, again featuring Howerd – followed. A stage version also exists, written for Howerd by Miles Tredinnick in 1998, but shelved at the time when the actor chose instead to reprise his role as Pseudolus in the Larry Gelbart/Stephen Sondheim A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. The play has since been revived several times since Howerd’s death, and has now been adapted into an audio play by director Barnaby Eaton-Jones. Performed twice in front of an audience at the Shaw Theatre, an edited version taken from both performances will go on sale to mark the show’s 50th anniversary.

In place of Frankie Howerd, Eaton-Jones sensibly turns to David Benson, a comic actor and impersonator who has played Howerd in a one-man show since 2001. Benson possesses the same sense of comic timing, the same ability to engage the audience in his fourth wall-busting denigrations of the perceived poor quality of the production he finds himself.

Such put-downs were a key component of Talbot Rothwell’s scripts for Howerd’s TV series, which was anything but as amateurish as the comedian’s put-downs would have us believe. If only one could have the same confidence in this production.

True, some of the haphazard nature is clearly planned, but the attempts to play in sound effects live frequently adds nothing but confusion to the already farcical proceedings. With lusty lewdness, bed and bath-hopping and multiple plot strands dependent on remembering who is where – a feat much harder when there are no physical sets to help – the asynchronous playing in of door slams and footsteps adds, rather than reduces, mental confusion.

Still, all the actors have a ball. Camille Coduri as escaped slave girl Voluptua capitalises on the breathless airhead persona her voice can suggest. In Doctor Who, her character of Jackie Tyler subverted that preconception; no such luck here, for this is a comedy style where one dimension is all each character requires.

Similarly, Cleo Rocos’s Suspenda is little more than a sex-mad siren – although the audio adaptation affords a rather fun explanation of why her every entrance is heralded by a sultry saxophone.

Of the women, only Madeleine Smith as the imperious Ammonia, head of the household, seems to hold only smarts at all – and even then, she later dissolves into a simpering wreck when an old flame resurfaces.

What stops the script from revelling in such sexist drivel as that pretty much all the men are awful too. Frazer Hines’s Ludicrus Sextus, a politician who arranges sexual assignations while pretending to be on official business (how unlike our own modern politicos) comes across as even more of a befuddled old goat, while the avuncular Tim Brooke-Taylor is bafflingly cast against type as the evil slaveship captain Treacherus.

Jack Lane – who has worked with Benson on the Dad’s Army Radio Hour, in which both actors play all the characters from the classic sitcom – is understandably used to the radio-sitcom-as-stage-play format, and it shows in a confidently drippy performance as young Nausius, whose amorous intentions towards Voluptua disrupt Lurcio’s own.

Overall, though, the first act of this reenactment is a little too haphazard, in a way that Lurcio’s asides about script quality and performer quality seem a little too on-the-nose. The second act improves substantially, as side plots converge and weave together. But the farcical elements that one could quite happily imagine playing out on stage with a multi-door set lose quite a lot in the audio landscape.

Still, Benson’s ability to swing effortlessly between Lurcio, Howerd-as-Lurcio, Howerd-as-frustrated-thespian, and Benson-as-the-same remains the highlight of this incarnation of the world that TV audiences fell in love with 50 years ago. For all its flaws, in evoking the memories of a bygone series it does its job solidly. One may not guffaw at Tredinnick’s script, but there’ll be no trouble getting yer titters out.

Performed on October 12. The recording will be released on November 29 2019

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