It should be no surprise that I am not the only unaccompanied adult at Little Howard’s Big Show. Behind me, inside Udderbelly’s Southbank home, are a row of late twenty-somethings – too old to be students, but not too old to enjoy watching a grown man hit himself over the head with a foam frying pan.
Big Howard and Little Howard – most famous for their CBBC show Little Howard’s Big Question – are a part animated, part human comedy duo. Little Howard is a six year old stand-up comedian and mischief magnet; Big Howard – creator Howard Read – is the straight man who takes all the flak when things go wrong, frequently upstaged by his cartoon agitator.
Little Howard is the little voice in our heads that tells us to say the wrong thing, or do the wrong thing, just at the wrong time. His voice is everyone’s slightly childish Wally voice, his eyes so big you can’t help but love him. His relationship with Big Howard is a modern twist on that between a ventriloquist and dummy: Little Howard says the things that Big Howard never would, yet somehow we still believe that Big Howard has never said them, as if he hasn’t co-written and pre-recorded all of Little Howard’s dialogue himself.
In fact it took me about forty minutes to realise I was watching a one man show, so bamboozled was I by the enormity of the imagined cast: Little Howard, his agent Roger T Pigeon, Gareth the Bear, Lennie the Invisible and Mute Duck, the Inspector from the Department of Light Entertainment and Social Security, his robot minion and the Royal Monkey Philharmonic Orchestra – a cast of thousands brought to life on projection screens or merely in the collective imagination of the audience.
Little Howard’s big secret is that behind the silliness and slapstick is pure comedic sophistication: flawless comic timing; wildly inventive conceits; an attitude to the fourth wall studied beautifully from its big showbiz-busting predecessors like The Muppet Show. It builds on its traditions with dazzling originality. See for example the way that the kids can interact with figures on the big screen, as if the environments of the theatre and the imagination are separated by a gap projector-screen thin.
Whilst Little Howard’s Big Show understands that no one is too old to laugh at Big Howard being hit round the head with a frying pan, it also knows that no one is too young to enjoy a big finale song about aquatic symbiosis. It knows how smart children can be whilst reminding us that we all like to be a bit stupid. It’s a show where nothing happens, twice, with an imaginary duck.