For those not au fait with the character of Count Arthur Strong here is a quick summary: an old-school vaudevillian-style performer and occasional actor with a repertoire of ventriloquism, song and dance, and unreliable anecdotes. In retirement (but still touring) his eccentricity and impatience characterise his life of cafe pedantry, love of cut-price meat and near constant confusion.
This tour is structured around a first half talk about the planets which diverges into a tirade against Professor Brian Cox and other amusing cul-de-sacs. Having vented upon the esteemed Professor the Count begins to prepare the room for the inevitable play about Galileo (as he fancies himself as a playwright as well).
Ever present and greatly appreciated by the audience, are the frenzied bouts of uncontrollable spoonerisms and malapropisms (tonight Galileo becomes Gary Barlow) which punctuate his set. This comic device has divided critics and audiences alike through the twenty-year run of the character with those that feel that the effort required to portray such confusion seems to be too intense for comedy whilst others praise the technical prowess involved in such physicality and commitment to the medium.
This is a solo show wherein the Count is continually grappling with the confusion of his utterances and taking those errors out on unseen helpers and the audience. Unlike stand-ups and other character comics the Count has no interest in audience interaction since the reality he inhabits is too remote and intense for such diversions.
Any apparent references to the audience are mere window dressing as he tears through the near two hours of new material. He manages to no avoid outright repetition of his past shows and BBC series and doing so is an impressive achievement alone. It is apparent however, that if he had managed to introduce any other elements of the Arthur-verse to this particular tour then the roof would have lifted off the Pavilion and the extra effort would have translated into a stellar show.
If there is a criticism to be levelled against the show it resides within the weaker second half. The strength of the first half is the writing and the audience are audibly in agreement but post-interval the set begins to meander and the introduction of ventriloquism indicates that the Count didn’t really have enough material for two hours. However, even in the weaker moments his captivating stage presence sustains the audience through the pregnant pauses.
In an era which revises and suggests re-writing elements of the troublesome and shameful past the Count exists as a vicarious conduit to the golden days of variety made palatable through the lens of absurdity and downright silliness. At moments throughout tonight’s show he refers to the audience as ‘boys and girls’ which somehow seems apt as his material has a warmth and openness which transcends the era that birthed the Count.