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BWW Review: WISDOM OF A FOOL, LOST Theatre

If you're over 50, you will recall a time when Norman Wisdom was ubiquitous on Britain's (three) television channels. His movies seemed to play every other Saturday morning, his cabaret act broadcast at least one evening per month and he was a chat show regular to boot. His brand of physical clowning was also easily exported - coming after Charlie Chaplin's heyday and before Mr Bean's success, he was loved all over the world, particularly behind the Iron Curtain. My father told me that Norman Wisdom's act was the best he ever saw live - and he had seen a few.

In the absence of the kind of academic and critical acclaim afforded to The Goons and extraordinary longevity of his nearest contemporary entertainers, Bruce Forsyth and Ken Dodd, Wisdom has faded somewhat from the public eye, but Jack Lane is doing all he can to keep a light burning for Wisdom's innocent tomfoolery with his show, Wisdom of a Fool.

On a stage populated by some wonderful props slowly revealed as the tale unfolds, we learn of Wisdom's tough upbringing in the mean streets of Paddington and at the hands of his even meaner father, his mother having walked out after one punch too many. We see the genesis of his famous Norman Pitkin character - the little guy who is all cheeky charm and pratfalls who somehow comes out on top - Pitkin is Wisdom with a happy ending. The boy truly was the father of the man.

After trying and failing at a wide range of jobs - another Wisdom / Pitkin trait - he blags his way into the Army and learns music and the art of entertaining. In the grim years "on the ration" after World War II, Wisdom's infectious laugh and sunny disposition was just what people needed and he toured the country's theatres and variety halls in the days before television, even extracting a decent reception from the notorious Glasgow Empire.

That he could clown, do stand-up, sing, dance and play instruments helped, but his biggest talent was the forging of a rapport with every audience, no matter where they were sitting, even if they were in a smoky cinema and Wisdom was on screen. Lane skilfully half-tells us and half-shows us how that trick was pulled off, but if all there was to it were a few grins and a bit of fourth wall demolition, well, they would all do it. Wisdom was indeed a genius of sorts.

Lane is very good, clearly transfixed by his subject, characterising but never caricaturing "Wizzy Wisdom." The walk, mannerisms and grin are just so and certainly threw me back in time in a Proustian rush of involuntary memory. His donning of the too small suit and turned up flat cap to "become" Norman Pitkin was beautifully done, older audience members around me barely able to breathe as the years fell away.

But that may turn out to be the key issue for the show - what is its audience? "Like Mr Bean, but not quite the same" wouldn't work to entice (say) my kids along and even my generation retains the insistent memory of Ade Edmundson and Rik Mayall exploding the gentle sweetness of much of Wisdom's stock-in-trade, when the anarchic duo turned into the Dangerous Brothers and later Vyvyan and Rick in The Young Ones.

But for those who treasure one of Britain's most loved stars of the 20th century and those who wish to see how worldwide comedy progressed from Chaplin to Bean, this affectionate and affecting show is perfect. Jack Lane does Norman Wisdom proud.

The Wisdom of a Fool is at the LOST Theatre until 11 March and on tour.


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From This Author Gary Naylor