Nicholas Parsons’ Happy Hour is like a dusty old set of furniture in a stately home. It’s grand and charming, but old-fashioned and wooden: preserved as a relic of times-gone-by, unchanging and nostalgic. The show ties together Parsons’ compering and three guest interviews, opening with a round of ‘what do you do and where do you come from?’ questions, the answers to which are met with camp flippancy and cruise-ship charm. ‘I remember Reading when it was a small market town,’ laments Parsons, ‘not like that now of course.’
The first two guests not only point nostalgically to times slipping away, but choose their material aptly to do so. Al Murray is interviewed in character as the Pub Landlord, an increasingly tired act and a persona who looks back to a white middle-England slipping away. Both men on stage are characters out-of-time, but it’s the one not in character, Parsons, who is most aware of it. The irony of the Pub Landlord was lost years ago and it certainly wasn’t refound in this middle-England menagerie.
Second is Christine Bovill, who previews her show of Édith Piaf covers, paying homage to the singer and style icon. After an interview potholed with name-dropping, her performance is near flawless in its musical capability. However, it’s all about preservation, not innovation, reverential rather than original. It’s an impersonation. It works because imitation is, indeed, the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s also limited because innovation is the more meaningful.
The highlight of the evening proves to be the interview with the Bob Downe, a flamboyant, baby-faced, Tracey Island puppet of a man. He matches the cruise-ship cabaret tone of the evening very well with his opening number, but soon settles down into an interview with Parsons that, whilst feelingly nostalgic, is also genuinely fascinating in its detail and insight. Until now we’ve missed having a Paul Merton figure against whom Parsons can show off his subtle, underrated ability to play both straight man and fool to a verbal wit. Downe steps into this role and has the grace to deftly turn the format around to make Parsons the interviewee. Parsons laments the decline of feed-and-foil comic duos just as the pair settle into exactly this rhythm.
The spell can’t last and Downe is soon playing us out with a sing-a-long of Day Dream Believer. Nicholas Parsons’ Happy Hour is stubbornly old-fashioned and besotted with times gone by. It’s a pleasure and privilege to see a performer with Parsons’ charm and gravitas still treading the boards at the Fringe. The audience still adore him and their admiration is heart-warming. However, it is limited to a museum showcase, preserving a time when cruise-ships were new, Piaf was singing and Reading was a market town.