REVIEW: The Phantom Raspberry Blower (St James Theatre)

Phantom Raspberry poster squareThis comedy has quite a history stretching back to 1969 when Spike Milligan conceived the idea as a possible vehicle for television for his former fellow Goons Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe. Sellers’ filming commitments meant that never happened and the script was eventually taken up by Ronnie Barker in 1971 for a one-off episode of his series for ITV, and again in 1976 when it was split into eight short episodes that was included in The Two Ronnies.

Then in 2014 writer Lee Moone (who is also a cast member in this production) got the blessing of the Barker and Milligan estates to adapt the work for the stage.

The set-up is the recording of a radio show with the performers at a row of mics taking various roles, supported by a pianist, a sound effects technician, and a dinner-jacketed announcer in the best tradition of the BBC Light Programme. The cast dons various hats and there’s some projected graphics in an effort to make it all a bit more visual.

So what we have here is a script that has never totaled more than about 20 minutes in length stretched out to over two hours, and it is really stretched . . . stretched to breaking point.

It’s quite clear that the Milligan and Barker script is just right at around the half hour mark. Ideas are not overplayed and the whole thing is kept tight with the rapid-fire gags giving the piece the right kind of pace. But this is way too long and as a result there are several moments when that impetus is lost.

I’m a big Spike Milligan fan, but would be the first to admit that not all his jokes hit the mark and could illicit more groans than laughs. But the thing about The Goon Show was that even the duds were carried off with aplomb, and you knew that for every howler, there would be another zinger along in a moment. That’s simply not the case here where the stupid word play often becomes a bit laboured and the tangents that script goes off on begin to feel like, well, tangents, designed to pad out the running time rather than those surreal flights of fantasy that Milligan would take us on — and, more importantly, know when to draw back from and return to the plot.

The three rules of comedy: timing, timing and timing.

And you have to wonder just how long it is before people blowing raspberries ceases to be funny, and the answer is, not very long at all. Especially with the massive clue in the title taking away any surprise element.

It’s not all bad though. There are still plenty of funny moments and the whole thing gets by on the sheer warmth and personality of the cast, especially Steve Elias and Jodie Jacobs. It just needs a bit of editing.

The Phantom Raspberry Blower is having a short run at the St James Theatre, where the Phantom will be played by a surprise guest each evening — it was impressionist John Culshaw on the night I went. Then at the end of January it starts a UK tour.

Reviewed by Tony Peters