For mid-century music hall artists, Flanders and Swann have proved surprisingly durable. Tim Fitzhigham and Duncan Walsh Atkins have forged themselves a Fringe favourite paying tribute, then there’s Armstrong and Miller’s fond parody of the plummy pair. Perhaps their gentle 50s humour goes down well with the vintage-loving Bake Off/Call The Midwife crowd, or perhaps a certain brand of English comedian simply aspires to their archness and wordsmithery. Either way, their oeuvre hasn’t disappeared into history like one might have expected. No-one seems quite as keen on reviving Flanagan and Allen, for instance.
John Bett’s Tipping The Hat is another homage to the duo, except it’s two Scots – John Jack and Gordon Cree – taking the roles. Both look the part – the bearded Jack belting out the songs, the bespectacled Cree tickling the ivories – but it isn’t straight impersonation as such. They refer to each other by their real names and retain their Scottish accents, only dropping it in song, and occasionally not even then.
Musically, it is fabulous. Both men would get approving nods from crowds of the old school for their revue skills, not least for their sonorous and crisply enunciated vocals. In fact, to modern ears, they’re a better listen than the men they are representing, more mellifluous and less stiff upper lip. Jack belts out and holds an impressive top note, and it’s easy to see why the Ken Dodd-approved Cree’s about to get the Scottish Music Hall and Variety Theatre Society’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Their Slow Train, sung tenderly under lamplight, is particularly lovely.
The songs need context though and here’s where it comes a little unstuck. We’re never quite sure what we’re seeing. It’s not a concert performance of Flanders & Swann songs. It’s not a play about their life. It’s not a pastiche. It’s a jumble of the three. There’s some nice biographical detail, like the genuinely interesting factoid that schoolmate Tony Benn was once their stage manager, but it’s piecemeal and fact-heavy. We learn little of their personal lives or personalities. There’s also an extended diversion into a sketch about railway axeman Dr Beeching, a propos of the aforementioned Slow Train, which delays that biographical story. The confusing effect is compounded by the set-up of Jack and Cree playing themselves playing Flanders & Swann, but with Scottish-themed gags and asides.
The best moments let the songs do the work. The Gas Man Cometh has Jack swapping costumes and props with comic exasperation while Cree sings the domestic disasters that “all makes work for the working man to do!” There’s always joy in hearing The Gnu and The Hippopotamus (“Mud, mud, glorious mud”) too. Jack and Cree have great chemistry and Jack in particular is great at playing to the crowd, ad libbing and raising some audience interaction. As usual, this lunchtime Play, Pie and a Pint crowd is greyish of hair, so it brings about a lot of happy reminiscing, Proustian moments and sing-a-longs. It’s just a little hard to see what the theatrical staging adds to what could be a perfectly fine straight tribute.