With a toothy grin, a knowing nod and a wink and a little ukulele in his hand, George Formby (played by Ewan Wardrop) steps on stage to tell his life story.
There will be “no girls, no dancers, no acrobats, no conjurers, not even a guest star” he cautions at the start of the show, “only me and the uke; but I’m going to tell you a few home truths”.
Remarkably for a one-man show we get many of the above as Wardrop works his own magic by morphing into a host of characters along the way. The production is largely based on a solo show, which Formby recorded for the BBC in 1960. While retaining his happy go lucky persona it was made at a difficult time for the star and the film is confessional in tone, as if putting the record straight, and in retrospect seems to presage his death shortly thereafter.
The telling may be faithful, using many of Formby’s own lines, but this time it’s more dynamic with George leaping from his armchair to bring to life scenes from the past - such as his mother schooling him to inherit his father’s music hall act or meeting his tap dancing wife (and future manager), Beryl. With little more than a feather boa or a pipe Wardrop swaps skilfully between characters allowing quick fire conversations. There are a few amusing self-aware quips to prompt that this is a theatrical piece and not just an impression or a tribute act. And of course, just as in his 22 films, there is always a song just around the corner.
Formby’s songs, such as “With My Little Stick of Blackpool Rock” are filled with all the fun and innuendo of a seaside postcard. Wardrop delivers them with striking fidelity in George’s, slightly quavering, heavily accented, nasal tones. He may not have all of Formby’s skill as a ukulele player, but then it has been said that no one has; before or after.
This is an entertaining, sometimes moving, comprehensive account of one of Britain’s most successful and highly paid comedians (at the height of fame he was being paid the equivalent of £1.5m a film at today’s prices).
Formby’s grave stone bears the inscription “A tradition nobly upheld” – a fitting epitaph for both his life and this show.
Show Times: Runs to 27 August 2012 (not 21); 4.45 pm.
Ticket Prices: £11 (£10) 14-16, 20, 22-23, 27 August. £13 (£12) other dates.