❉ Paul Abbott revels in John Finnemore’s world of silly imagery, to-and-fro knockabout routines, nested gags and an obsession with amusing animals.
It’s a warm spring night in Preston and those of us who’ve made the 40 mile train journey from Liverpool have finally emerged from the station feeling like we might well have been in some sort of comic farce that John Finnemore has arranged with Northern Rail in order to make the evening memorable right from the off. How kind of him – and how nice of him to ensure the trains back to Liverpool were all cancelled after the show, thus giving us more time to mull over the performance we’ve just seen as we sit on our hastily-arranged rail replacement coach whilst it pootles through Lancashire at half-past midnight.
It was in these circumstances that we saw the show and it’s testament to the joy it brought that the otherwise depressing travel arrangements fade to nothing in comparison (at least now I’ve got them out of my system on this page). Preston Guild Hall, a slightly strange 1970s Escher-esque arrangement of staircases, ramps and escalators, seats about 800 and is pretty well full as the curtain rises for John Finnemore’s Flying Visit – presumably so named as the BBC hold the right to the title “Souvenir Programme”, the Radio 4 series from where the bulk of the sketches are drawn. But it’s appropriate for it to have changed, not least as it reflects the influence of Monty Python’s Flying Circus on Finnemore, but also ties neatly into the theme of his other major comic success on radio, the sitcom Cabin Pressure. Clearly many of the audience members are there because of Cabin Pressure, as any reference to the show is greeted with effusive cheering. It may be an odd thing that a character from a radio sitcom making a live appearance in the stage version of a radio sketch show should provoke such a warm response, but the arrival of none other than Cabin Pressure’s air steward Arthur Shappey himself, who is subject to an interview with the perennially frustrated Patsy Straightwoman, proves a highlight of the show and is handled in the typically smart and satisfying Finnemore style.
The whole show, in fact, is seeded with smart callbacks and running themes which have become a hallmark of Finnemore’s writing and came to exquisite fruition in the final episode of the last series of Souvenir Programme. That’s not to say that the show wears its smartness on its sleeve. It is joyfully fast and daft in a way that the black-out style of sketches demands. Interspersed with necessary linking material, Uncle Lawry’s Pet Tips and Missed Connections, to cover costume and technical changes (not that this is a very dressy show), the sketches rattle along at a great pace, with John Finnemore additionally playing the role of show ‘host’. Not to the audience, per se, but more to the rest of the cast – Lawry Lewin, Simon “Four Voices” Kane, Margaret Cabourn-Smith and Carrie Quinlan – who, as in the radio show, interrupt and hector the ringmaster for better roles, equality of singing opportunities or dog biscuits. The cast are great throughout and there’s the sense of a really fun revue team here.
Sketch and song content is mainly just silly, with about the closest thing to a confessional style of comedy coming in the sketch where Finnemore attempts to sort out his wardrobe, deciding what shirts to keep and which to discard. A sizeable chunk of the other material features his obsession with amusing animals (“a gun full of tigers!”) and an already great radio sketch about the people who design animals is made even sillier by the clever use of projected graphics to make the sketch better suited to a stage setting. The playfulness of the staging and performance is even more fun to behold if you’ve heard John Finnemore discussing how difficult and frustrating he finds the act of writing itself, which you can do by listening to the excellent Sitcom Geeks interview here or the first episode of the captivating Rule of Three podcast here.
There’s a little bit of audience participation and audience pandering, carefully played as one of the show’s framing devices and the crowd entered into their role as tubas with glee, ‘Bwoorping’ along as directed and joining in with the Preston-themed closing number. The songs are great, but if I’ve any complaint it would be that it’d be nice to hear the backing tracks worked up into fuller arrangements, as the bom-cha-bom-cha piano style perhaps doesn’t give them enough dynamic heft. The song/sketch with Finnemore at the air-piano in the guise of composer Johann Pachalbel comes across better on stage than it did on the radio, with his Canon-in-D-induced neurosis visually played out. Certainly there can’t be any other comedy sketch shows doing the rounds at the moment that namecheck Pachelbel’s 1699 collection of arias, the Hexachordum Apollinis.
The audience totters out of the theatre after two and a half hours, some of which time was spent literally buzzing, carrying a Mousetrap-style secret with them and images of Disney characters painted on ice-cream vans, or of novel uses for carrier bags, gardening gloves and mini-sieves and the thought of Sir Edward Elgar dog-sledding to Norway. John Finnemore’s world is a delight of silly imagery, to-and-fro knockabout routines, nested gags and cunning structure and so, while there still might need to be some rough edges rounded off the show as a whole, it was a blast to sit and revel in the good humour of someone who is rightfully garnering more than one mantlepiece worth of writing awards. Someone give that man another mantlepiece.
❉ John Finnemore tour dates and tickets from Ents24.com, the UK’s biggest entertainment website: https://www.ents24.com/uk/tour-dates/john-finnemore
❉ Paul Abbott runs Hark! The 87th Precinct Podcast, which takes a look at each of the books in series in turn, but usually turns quite silly. He also makes noises with his band in Liverpool, Good Grief, and spends the rest of the time thinking about Transformers, The Beatles, Doctor Who and Monty Python.