Cambridge's leading amateur theatre production company

Established 1981

Dick Barton - Special Agent
by  Phil Willmott   directed by Colin Lawrence

The Playroom, Cambridge, July 2008

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Two Reviews of Dick Barton - Special Agent
by Barry Brown & BBC Radio Cambridgeshire
Dick Barton originally ran on what was then the wireless between 1946 and 1951 in short episodes of breathless derring-do. Hugely popular, it pitted the lantern-jawed Barton against a legion of dastardly foreigners, most of whom this country had recently beaten in a fair fight, but was ultimately defeated by an evil that was impervious to pluck and a stiff upper lip, 'The Archers'. However, for a brief heady time this everyday story of King and Country Folk cantered into the public imagination, its pace and cliff-hanging conclusions masking the laughability of its bizarre plots.

Happily, nothing masked the laughability of this inspired evening, a masterclass in comic character-acting under the firm and inventive control of Colin Lawrence. Reworked, by necessity, for the Playroom as a live radio broadcast, the setting stripped out all the things that work against comic pace and invention and added the sense of company that came from seeing everyone waiting their turn to approach the magnificent period microphone.

And no one approached it with more dapper anticipation than Nick Warburton as the Announcer, the epitome of the old BBC and a man who paused for just a second before advancing, as though mentally checking his flies.

Guy Holmes could (and where the plot demanded it, did) play the solid, upper crust action man that was Dick Barton in his sleep, but he is always far more than a leading man and it was his Snowey that particularly delighted me, giving him the chance to create an hilarious writhing monument of cockerny embarrassment as he fought to come to terms with Jane Austen or engaged in a memorably surreal exchange that confused putty with Putney.

That this last gag worked so well was because it was bounced off the perfect foil, Dave Foyle, who played everything as straight as is possible for a character sent to Eton by wolves. His Baron Scarheart was never self-indulgent; it engaged the audience and it set the tone by substituting character for pantomime, a tiny dance of evil glee the merest hint of exuberance.

Ranged against him and his increasingly baroque schemes was a gallery of stock characters from the period, played to perfection by a small cast of very experienced players. It was a delight to see Mike Milne as the believably dependable Jock, his accent only slipping when he took on Bing Crosby, his commitment evident in the way he kept his knees apart whilst sitting in his kilt.

Sally Marsh and Ken Eason were able to let their hair down, particularly as a dippy American (Sally) and camp agent (Ken) and Ron Meadows really was the voice of them all, taking us with relish from Berlin to Birmingham with a side order of Winston Churchill, and every one a fully-realised character.

New to me were Meg Dixon and Kathy Wholley, rare comic actors who produced memorable characters. Kathy as Daphne Fritters strung together neat, awkward pearls of grief and suppressed desire, recreating a performance worthy of Joyce Grenfell. Meg as Marta Heartburn was slinky and commanding, Marlene Dietrich played by Uma Thurman. If she had been any more fatale, Joyce Fenton and Judy Hanson would have had to leave their special effects and hose the audience down.

It might have been nice to develop the characters of the actors as they sat around the studio and I would have loved to see a real tap routine as they impersonated elephants (don't ask), but that would have been a different production and this was just fine as it was: surreal, crazy, controlled and just long enough to leave us all on a cliff-hanger, asking for more.

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Mandy Morton & Nicola Upson of BBC Radio Cambridgeshire review DICK BARTON - SPECIAL AGENT

Mandy: Dick Barton is riding high again in the county. It was very, very well attended last night, so I think the best thing to do is to book in advance. We went out last night to see Dick Barton Special Agent - or is it 'Secret Agent'?
Nicola: Special Agent
Mandy: Special Agent.  It was a Bawds production and it is on at the Corpus Christi Playroom for the rest of the week.  And what did we think?
Nicola: We thought it was absolutely fabulous.
Mandy: It was.
Nicola: Of course it was complete nonsense from start to finish, as you would expect from Dick Barton, but the performances were brilliant.   It was lovely because it was set in a radio studio in 1950, a bit like 'Round the Horne' was when it came to the theatre.  And they really gave evocative Light Programme type radio feel to it.  I thought the cast were absolutely superb from start to finish.  Guy Holmes worked particularly hard as the man himself Dick Barton and also his sidekick Snowey.  But they were all good.  As far as names go I loved the name Daphne Fritters.
Mandy: I've got a lot of time for that.  I also thought that Meg Dixon as Marta Heartburn was wonderful.  But as I said the whole cast were great and the costumes really added to that feel.  And it was really energetic but I suppose the stars of the show were the voices.  I think they did the style of the voices of old time radio really, really well.  A play within a play it was lovely because you had the prompt table there, with all the sound effects on it and that sort of thing.  There was a lady who was opening and closing the door, a little clapper board and all of that.  It was done in the true style of the old fashioned BBC, because those that were actually doing the sound effects all had the old-fashioned brown overall coats on.  They had a lovely beautiful BBC microphone as well And it's a really lovely intimate theatre so you got the feel that you were really in the radio studio.
Nicola: You did, and it's a difficult place to play, the Playroom, because the audience is facing in two different directions, and that was handled really well.  But what struck me was that it was first night and it was absolutely flawless.  They must have worked and rehearsed so hard because it was absolutely flawless from start to finish.
Mandy: A good laugh and another good thing to go out on a summer's evening for.  So if you want to go along it is on until the end of the week on Saturday   The Playroom is the place and it is just at the back of the Arts Theatre off St Edwards Passage and if you want to book in advance I am told that  there is about forty tickets gone for each night heading for the weekend which means that there aren't a great deal of tickets left but I would recommend it that if you did actually want to pop out  on a summer's evening then go and see that.  The Arts Theatre Box Office is the place to get your tickets but if you are going on the night get there early and get your tickets from the Stage Door of the Arts Theatre, because the theatre is actually dark this week so you will need to go to the Stage Door entrance in St Edward's Passage .  Well Done to Bawds.