A unique experience in which not everything will go right, but like in the life of the fictional Hancock himself, everything will end on a punch line.
Some context: Hancock’s Half Hour was a hugely popular show in Britain during its radio, and then television, run between 1954 and 1961. It starred Tony Hancock, a popular actor and comedian, and was written by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, two writers who pioneered the sitcom genre. In short, the humour is very British and had your grandparents crying with laughter.
The stage adaptation uses original scripts found by the director, Neil Pearson. These particular scripts are unique because the recordings for them are ‘missing’ from the BBC archive. Therefore, the onstage production gives its audience the opportunity to hear these episodes for the first time since the 1950s!
This adaptation is very true to the form. The stage is set simply, with two retro broadcasting microphones, five chairs for the cast when they are not in the ‘scene’, and a blinking red light, which indicates when they are ‘on the air’. The feeling is that you are inside a recording studio.
The show is energised by its lively cast: Kevin McNally, Simon Greenall, Alex Lowe, Robin Sebastian and Susy Kane. When the reading goes live each actor has a script in hand and keeps his or her eyes glued to the pages. Movement on stage is very limited, and the world of the episode is created in the collective imagination of audience and cast.
The (voice) acting is spot on, with each actor indistinguishable from their series counterpart. Sebastian stands out especially as the posh character actor, taking on bit parts with aplomb.
Needless to say, this is a performance with a legacy, and it shows. When it works it feels like an inside joke, as if everyone has secretly heard this episode before, but that doesn’t stop the humour from being just as witty and the laughs being just as loud as they were in the original recordings.
On the other hand, if you are not in on the joke sometimes the laughs pass by. Even though these ‘missing’ episodes have a unique history no one said they were the best in the cannon. Furthermore, one wonders if perhaps there is a reason the original Half Hour never took to stage and made the jump straight to television.
The show is at its best when the actors go off-script: acknowledging out-dated references, or fluffed lines, or apologising for the odd joke. Reminding the audience that this is a loving tribute.
It is exactly those moments, which give the feeling that each showing will not just be a reading, but a unique experience in which not everything will go right, but like in the life of the fictional Hancock himself, everything will end on a punch line.