Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Theatre review: Never Try This At Home

When a show's publicity tells you that people sitting in the front row will be given a plastic mac to wear over their clothes, it's a safe bet that the front row's a place to be avoided. Of course, it's just as safe a bet that people like me and Phill will head straight for it, and that's what I recommend you do as well if you go see Told By An Idiot's Never Try This At Home. The silliest show I've seen for a long time but with a surprisingly serious core, it's a take-down of 1970s and '80s Saturday morning children's TV with a lot to say about the attitudes of the time as well. With all the characters sharing their actors' names there's a feeling that the scripted parts of the show are complemented by a fair bit of genuine improvisation - especially as it's fronted by Whose Line Is It Anyway? stalwart Niall Ashdown as a present-day TV presenter.

Ashdown is hosting an edition of Looking Back Together, a TV show reuniting well-known groups from the past. This week it's the presenters and creatives of SHUSHI, a kids' TV programme that got pulled off air in 1979 after a regular butt of the presenters' jokes finally had enough and snapped on live TV.

So the show alternates between Dudley Rees, Petra Massey and Stephen Harper re-enacting "clips" from SHUSHI's heyday, including the fateful one that saw it axed; and Ashdown interviewing them in the present day (those of them who aren't either dead or hospitalised, that is,) as they either try to cope with the aftereffects or downplay their responsibility for what happened. Written by Carl Grose and the cast and directed by Paul Hunter, the show captures the anarchic atmosphere of Saturday morning TV while pushing it that little bit further ("After last week's game of Kick The Vicar, some of our viewers took things a bit too far. We'd like to apologise to Father Ken and wish him a speedy recovery.")

What's particularly clever about the show is the balance it achieves between pure entertainment and something a little bit more uncomfortable, as it serves as a genuine satire on the attitudes of the time: Petra, openly referred to as "something for the dads," is essentially bullied throughout every edition, while "superfan" Okorie Chukwu is promised every week he'll be allowed to sing on live TV, only to be humiliated. Nerves fray, and one of the more darkly surreal moments of the show sees an on-air suicide attempt involving baked beans.

The show walks a tightrope with the jokes about racial stereotypes, playing things near the knuckle with things like Ashdown's impression of Archbishop Desmond Tutu (big SHUSHI fan) but basically staying on the side of an affectionate piss-take. The more biting commentary comes in the personal attacks on Petra and Okorie, which make for some disturbing and thought-provoking moments.

It's impressive that Never Try This At Home manages to do this without ever losing its sense of fun and inventiveness. Among the custard pie fights moments that stand out include Massey's spot-on Noel Edmonds as we see the show's rather staid rival; things get shaken up a bit when Ged Simmons as SHUSHI's producer phones in to recreate the infamous Going Live Five Star moment. Then there's the continued use of a rubber mallet as a phone, and Rees' weirdly seductive Indian houseboy. Never Try This At Home has a point to make about the darker side behind the scenes of beloved shows, without losing the anarchic enthusiasm behind them. It all descends into a custard pie fight, obviously; highly recommended to any overgrown kids out there.

Never Try This At Home by Carl Grose and Told By An Idiot is booking until the 27th of April at Soho Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes straight through.

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1 comment:

  1. If you're really lucky you get a snog and even a custard pie "to do whatever you want!"