Simon Day appeared In Character at the Waterside in Sale on Thursday, treating the busy theatre to an evening of considered comedy.
The show sees Day play four of his best characters – opening with The Fast Show’s pub bore Billy Bleach, and finishing with a turn from ageing rock legend Brian Pern.
Life has moved on since the 1990s heyday of The Fast Show, as it has for Billy – now a father who must adjust to his local becoming a Wetherspoon’s. The highlights here come from lines about fatherhood, as Billy describes standing on the sidelines shouting generic football phrases to 10-year-old Kendrick. Naturally, he takes no notice.
Though the cockney elicits plenty of solid laughs, it feels somewhat unfulfilled – there’s more that could be done to lampoon ‘that bloke who’s always in the pub’ than by simply having him tell off-colour jokes.
We’re then introduced to Yorkshire poet Geoffrey Allerton, a pitch-perfect pastiche of Alan Bennett, with a his reading of England – ‘Paul vows to leave Greggs and join a proper bakery/Somewhere custard is too hot, somewhere custard is too cold/England. England.’ The character first appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Down the Line and subsequent TV spin-off Bellamy’s People.
Musing on circuses, rail travel and marriage, it’s an occasionally tender and consistently hilarious send-up. The verse frequently strays into believability before it’s redressed by something daft, and both poetry and character demonstrate Day’s sharp observational skill.
After the interval, Day brings out reformed ex-con Tony Beckton to ruminate on a life of crime and punishment. Another Down the Line and Bellamy’s People alumnus, Beckton is every London-hardman-turned-author with some Charles Bronson and Paul Sykes thrown in for good measure.
Like with Billy Bleach, it’s a character that Day draws on experience to form – though brought up in a reasonably middle-class household in the South-East London suburb of Blackheath, Day himself served time in Borstal in his youth, and battled substance addiction throughout the 90s.
Again, it’s an amusing and well-observed parody, but could be improved by dialling down the villainy and delving a bit deeper.
We’re reacquainted with Brian Pern as the final act, reassuring the audience that reports of his death – including last year’s BBC Four tribute – have been greatly exaggerated.
Though pub bore and cockney hardman are closer to Day’s own personality, it’s as Brian that he seems most comfortable and convincing. With three cultishly successful BBC series under his belt, Day’s had more recent practice in the role, and it shows.
He opens with acoustic numbers lamenting the death of a bee (Honeycomb is Over) and the sale of Alfred Hitchcock’s former home to a popular chicken restaurant (Dial N for Nando’s). The songs are bizarre but hilarious, owing to Brian’s solemn, earnest performance.
Sharing photos of his humanitarian work with African tribes, he fondly remembers the music they made before he inadvertently wiped out an entire people by passing on the common cold – ‘most tragically, none of the recordings survived’.
It makes for a pleasing continuation of the TV series, a spot-on satire of musicians and music.
The fact that Day inhabits each of these distinct personas – and rarely misses a line while doing so – is testament to his ability as an actor.
The show a refreshing format packed with laughs and ideas, and though some work better than others, it’s a performance full of character.