Mercury Theatre, Colchester, then touring
These days our Arfur comes complete with an overture! It takes the form of Kirsty Newton at the piano (artfully disguised as an upright 1940s pub-battered joanna, in front of some equally retro wallpaper and a modest screen for the pics). She appears in a fine and equally retro print frock, to storm through ‘My Old Man’s a Dustman’, ‘Follow the Van’, ‘Tipperary’ etc while we settle down (in my case in the smart new Mercury in Colchester, but it’s a tour of one-nighters so heaven know where you’ll be, see below).
Then on comes Arthur Smith, and we see that undimmed by lockdown-year is his tendency to merriment and causing merriment, whether in Barry-Cryer-type gags, geezerish challenges to the audience, or unmatchable stories. So we’re soon into this tale: a memorial ramble around the life and times of his late father Syd Smith. He was a WW2 veteran of El Alamein, a Colditz prisoner and a South London copper. Syd wrote a journal of much of his life in straightforward, dryly humorous police-report prose: a handwritten volume which Arthur at the lectern cherishes, and from which he reads the odd excerpt.
The timeline of the story moves zig-zag style, illustrated from time to time with photos and at one point with some wartime footage. First come the postwar police experiences, with Arthur donning a helmet and jacket to conjure up both the boredom of the beat and the duties of a good cop towards Sarf London drunkards. It’s very funny. We love Syd already.
Then it rolls back to the war and El Alamein and hardship and fear, slave labour in copper mines, then lighter duties at Colditz where he reckons he was sent to assist the posher officer-class. He found it pretty cushy. This experience is interspersed with Arthur’s own time as a student layabout in 1968 in Paris, demonstrating about things he hadn’t really thought much about, but the shouting was fun.
In one way this double-vision narrative of 1944 and 1968 is distracting, but in another (something which our host could well point up a bit more sharply) it provides an ironic contrast between the two teenage experiences, and reminds us how our postwar boomer generation lucked out compared to its Dads. Newton pops out from behind the piano to play some of the women they each encounter.
And they both sing a few songs, she expertly, he with characteristic fearlessness (some of us wish he would do his Leonard Cohen show more often). Many of the songs chosen work in context, like the Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset, or a mournful “That’s no way to say goodbye” when Syd gets a dear-John letter in Colditz from the girl he would have married. Others are less so, and slow things up a bit.
But even then, you mainly think two things. One is “This is like a long session in a pub. Bloody hell, I wish Arthur would come and liven up our local” . The other is that we really love Syd almost as much as we’ve always loved Arfur. That’ll do.