Riverside Studios, touring 8 February – 5 April 2009
Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide
The banner over the stage in Riverside Studios’ Studio 2 reads, ‘Count Arthur Strong: The Man Behind the Slime’. This comical misprint is representative of both the style and the quality of comedy in store.
Count Arthur Strong is a comic persona created by actor and comedian Steve Delaney: a washed-up minor television personality from the 60s, reduced to touring small or provincial theatres peddling nostalgia in the vain hope of reviving his fortunes.
Character comedy works best when it satirises and caricatures familiar personalities and ‘types’; and thanks to reality TV, there’s no type more familiar than the minor celebrity, already way past his use-by date and impressing no-one by continuing to hang around.
So the Count is a sound concept for a character; but Delaney’s act derives little comedy from this promising setup, relying instead on a small palette of tired comic delivery techniques.
Gags include malapropisms (“Dildo Baggins from that Lord of the Flies”; “Quasimodo, the humpback o’ Notting Hill”); meandering, repetitive rambles that turn from simple utterances into nonsense; and outbursts of mild but savagely delivered invective against the incompetents the Count blames for his decline.
What these features of Delaney’s performance have in common is that they are tired, outdated and not due a nostalgic revival for at least as long as Strong himself. Perhaps they were the height of creativity when Delaney created the character in the 80s, but comedy has moved on since then.
The closest Delaney comes to fully exploiting his concept is in an anecdote, in which the Count claims Nicholas Parsons and Clement Freud used to steal cheese from the refreshment table whilst recording Just A Minute (on which Strong was notionally once a contestant).
It could almost be a comment on the inconsequential backstage ‘scandals’ revealed in gossip magazines and celebrity autobiographies – though the focus falls instead on Strong’s bitter envy of his more successful counterparts.
Welcome relief from Strong’s bellyaching comes in the form of old black-and-white TV clips, convincingly edited to feature appearances by the Count.
This is the closest the show veers to actual wit. Shots of Strong nodding cluelessly along with an eloquent Laurence Olivier evoke the vapid fakery evinced by morning talk show hosts when faced with dull or incomprehensible guests – though the funniest moment is a neat edit that allows Sir Laurence to give Strong a posthumous poke in the eye.
Perhaps I was the wrong person to review The Man Behind the Smile. The majority of the audience laughed merrily along with the Count’s splutters and stumbles. Perhaps his radio show provides background knowledge vital to understanding the show.
At least Delaney gives a convincing performance. Strong must be quite a physical strain to play – constantly hunched, forcing his words out past a constricted throat and recalcitrant tongue, limping in doddering circles as he scrunches up his face in difficult recollection – but Delaney inhabits the mannerisms believably and consistently. The thing is, I wish he wouldn’t bother.
Written by Steve Delaney
Cast includes Steve Delaney (Count Arthur Strong)