On another Sunday night not long ago in this very theatre, Ken Dodd held court for many, many hours with his celebrated Laughter Show (despite getting shirty with the sound man a couple of times). It felt like he was the last surviving link to the days of the Variety circuit. Now Doddy’s gone too, but the true heir to that deliciously old-school style of comedy might well be Steve Delaney, in the form of Count Arthur Strong. The Count is a character, though, rather than a well-drilled Doddy gag merchant, so he delivers the laughs by mucking stuff up and singularly failing to be the dazzling, accomplished entertainer that he’s convinced he is.
This current Alive and Unplugged tour comes at a funny time for Count Arthur. The marvellous BBC sitcom he starred in for three series was axed last year to much gnashing of teeth. As the title suggests, the new show responds by taking a back-to-basics, unadulterated approach, presenting the character entirely unadorned with any supporting characters or hangers-on. In this sense it harks back to the earliest Count Arthur live outings such as Forgotten Egypt. As with those, the only variety (as opposed to Variety) on show is a projected mini-film, in this case episodes of a supposed newly-recovered sci-fi TV adventure starring the Count from 1958. It comes across like Quatermass as though made by the Mancunian Film Corporation and it wouldn’t look at all out of place if you caught it on Talking Pictures TV one afternoon. It’s lovingly observed, but as the spine of the whole show it’s also a little spindly and one-note. Arthur’s too much of a strong character to be languishing in an extended genre spoof, and besides, seeing him at work slightly spoils the old quandrary of whether his acting career was just a strange delusion all along.
But no matter. Much stronger are the well-honed routines elsewhere in the show. It opens with Arthur’s tuneless tribute to the late Bruce Forsyth and moves on through his befuddled crack at Jackanory, a one-man retelling of the Last Supper and a ventriloquism routine that’s more Dead of Night than Keith Harris & Orville. It’s here that you’re seeing pure Count Arthur, a brilliant, skilful revival of the Variety tradition through the prism of chronic forgetfulness and sheer ineptitude. He’s a first-rate creation and Delaney is a comic natural. Arthur might be a difficult character to contain and present within a show format, particularly without other characters to bounce off, and this might not be his most sure-footed outing. But when Delaney hits the spot, which is gratifyingly often, you can almost hear the lost greats of the Comedy Hall of Fame roaring along with the audience. He’s worth treasuring, let alone going to see.
Count Arthur Strong is Alive & Unplugged: upcoming tour dates, including York, Newcastle, Runcorn, Doncaster and Stockport, can be found here: http://www.countarthurstrong.com/events/