Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Archive Review • OLD KING COLE • Unicorn @ Cochrane Theatre • 2004

Personal snapshot of theatrical phenomenon Ken Campbell, taken by Richard Adams [Wikipedia]

Personal snapshot of theatrical phenomenon Ken Campbell, taken by Richard Adams [Wikipedia]

Ken Campbell’s dastardly comedy for kids, Old King Cole is a well-travelled piece. It even attracted the attention of stern-faced German academics in the ‘seventies, who saw the show’s sausage-chomping trap-meister, the amazing Faz, as a thinly disguised satire on the Frankfurter Allemagne Zeitung newspaper.

Political allegory aside, the show, presently manifested by Unicorn Theatre at the Cochrane Theatre, reminds us of how rare it is to find genuinely amusing seasonal fare for children; this is an anarchically silly satire which neither patronises its audience nor relies on crummy recycled pop songs and ‘c’ list celebs for its appeal.

The story is sublimely stupid. Faz and his feeble-minded assistant Twoo, whilst setting a fiendishly ingenious rat trap for the pesky rodent they believe has been nibbling at their sausages, inadvertently drop their ‘paraphernalia’ case on weedy Baron Wadd, hopeless misfit and suitor to Old King Cole’s troublesome daughter Daphne.

Jump to Wembley stadium, where the pleasingly peripheral King has set up a sporting contest between the preferred candidate, sleek, handsome, sporty Cyril the Fiddler, and the puny Baron, and we have opportunities galore for dirty tricks and extreme silliness, as we follow the boxing, long jump and fencing competitions, guided by a suitably earnest commentator.

The second half transports us into the corridors of Buckingham Palace, where we witness Faz and Twoo’s attempts, via the ‘Messy Clothes Wag Trap’ — and eagerly assisted by members of the audience — to disrupt Daphne’s wedding to the dashing, muscle-bound, sun-tanned Cyril.

Got the picture? The show’s pure Beano and Dandy, with a hint of Dashiel Hammett, and pokes uproarious fun at the goody-goody stuff which used to be shoved at kids through the pages of The Eagle and is still peddled in pantos and kids’ shows the length and breadth of the country.

And why isn’t there more of it? The night I was there it was difficult to decide who was laughing loudest: the kids, encouraged to scream at Cyril then blow him over, or their parents, guffawing at the sheer lunacy of it all.

Campbell’s script has been tinkered with to bring it up-to-date, and there’s the odd song here and there, but essentially it’s the same show that’s been doing the business with both young and old since 1967. Maybe it’s time Campbell, chuckling in the audience with what appeared to be three generations of his family, set Faz and Twoo, and their astounding gifts for trap-based mischief on Robin Hood, Dick Whittington et al, sparing parents the drudge of dragging their offspring to dreary pantos year after year.

And though the cast at The Cochrane could do with sharpening up their delivery here and there, it’s an engaging production, suitably idiotic, and brimming with inventive slapstick, daft sound effects and eccentric props. And the kids love every minute of it.

Charismatic Nick Hagget as The Amazing Faz, and Ben Fox, his twittish sidekick, make a fine double act, plotting and scheming to no great effect other than that of general mayhem. James Cash struts his muscles — and red underpants — to hilarious effect, whilst Baron Wadd (Daniel Crute) falls over his bandy legs a lot. Leah Fletcher (Daphne), Malcolm James (King), and Angela Bain (Queen Brenda) squabble much like our own dysfunctional Royals, and Simon Nock’s enigmatic pauses, as the MC, may well attract the attention of the German academics unless he’s very careful.

If, like me, you find the sound of kids’ laughter irresistible, then make sure Old King Cole is on your list of attractions this festive season. Better still, book to see it twice…just to make absolutely sure.

John Biggins © 2004

Originally published on R&V 04.12-04

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