An Evening Of Flanders And Swann

Tim FitzHigham, Duncan Walsh Atkins, the Hippo et al return, fresh from headlining the International Flanders & Swann Festival.
Oxford Playhouse, Tue 10th & Wed 11th July 2007 and again for a rematch in 2013

January 22, 2013

Returned to the Playhouse in January 2013.

Fully aware of my personal bias towards the flamboyant duo, I arrived at the Playhouse with a secret weapon designed to temper any preconceived enthusiasm: a (relative) Flanders and Swann virgin. For those as yet innocent of the witty ramblings of Michael Swann, or the tinkling piano genius that was Donald Flanders, I can only gesture you earnestly to the nearest venue hosting Tim Fitzhigham's and Duncan Walsh-Atkins's homage to the comic couple. Even the F&S ingenue I had with me came out grinning.

The show takes the format of the original revues, but with no attempt to deceive us into believing the two are our born-again eponymous heroes. Fitzhigham's enthusiastic retelling of the conception of the original songs and the clear chemistry in the relationship he has with Walsh-Atkins manages to recreate the atmosphere and appeal that made F&S such a success on the British revue circuit. In addition, modern re-writings of old anecdotes and updated references in some well-known songs breathe new life into jokes that may have, otherwise, become staid. Plenty of the old 'in' jokes were interspersed with contemporary allusions to today's politicians meaning that Fitzhigham offered the audience a satisfying mixture of material that offered originality without tempering the style that some of the well-versed fans had arrived to see.

A welcome addition to this show, that singles it out from any other Flanders and Swann reproduction, is the addition of some the much lesser known but nevertheless quite brilliant monologues written by Michael Swann. Much underrated and now, thanks to Fitzhigham, being reintroduced to a younger generation, the fact that these monologues are in many ways indistinguishable from some of the other anecdotes scattered amongst the songs is a testament to the skill of the performers. Indeed, whilst originally attending in the hopes of hearing and singing along to old favourites such as The Gnu Song and the The Hippopotamus Song, I left, two and a half hours and two encores later, not only wanting more, but determined to look up the comedy work of Tim Fitzhigham himself.

Finally, if you're still unsure about seeing this show, I should add that it is one of the very few out there that will genuinely appeal to the whole family. Animal songs with accessible jokes and puns are liberally scattered with bawdy but inoffensive and delightfully clever quips - which means that everyone from your young niece to your great-grandmother are likely to enjoy themselves. All in all a wonderfully entertaining performance that is light-hearted, well-performed and (much to my personal satisfaction) gloriously silly.

You couldn't ask for more on frozen January evening.

July 10, 2007
It is said that Charlie Chaplin once entered a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest, and finished third. While this may be irrelevant (or a hippopotamus) it does prove we like our legends larger than life - reputations grow bigger and better than the real thing. Tim FitzHigham out-Flandered Flanders last night, to the tuneful accompaniment of Duncan Walsh Atkins. They were faster, wilder, more mobile(!) and more manic than the original. And Tim's mad staring eyes during Madeira, M'dear would surely have pleased Michael himself.

It was also very enjoyable to hear some of the lesser known numbers - The Warthog, The Armadillo and The Rhino all made an appearance, alongside the ubiquitous Gnu and Hippo(s). From the first note of In The Bath it was clear the musicianship was good, and Duncan's piano-playing was particularly impressive. And while the ensemble might not have been perfect, I reminded myself sternly that F&S had performed together tens of thousands of times before making the recordings we all know.

And this was the problem - through the CDs we know these songs, and the monologues too. In fact familiarity with the originals was encouraged and expected, as the audience were invited to join in. The problem is that if you know the original intimately the imitation has to be right - the words, the pauses, the inflections. Who are Tim and Duncan's ideal audience? People who know the songs, but not the introductions to them? Or just the nostalgically amnesiac?

Tim and Duncan have set themselves a hard task. To imitate you must look and sound right, which fortunately they do. You must act right, and interact right, and these qualities are reproduced more shakily. Tim veers from being Michael to being Tim, and his exaggerated insults tip the balance of the partnership. It was easy to believe Flanders and Swann were actually friends, or at least respected each other. Michael was pompous, but could cheerfully lampoon himself, even on the subject of his wheelchair. Donald at times must have itched to escape light music, but knew that the partnership worked. His ability at composing and languages were used in the shows, even if Flanders feigned annoyance. And in this whole tribute Tim and Duncan told us nothing of Flanders and Swann as people, and nothing of themselves, where some history might have made more sense of the music, and some personal details would have raised the show from funny to warm.

For me the faults of the evening were most obvious in The English Are Best, whose proper title is A Song of Patriotic Prejudice. Flanders introduces it with a laugh in his voice. He and Swann make outrageous statements about European nations, heap hyperbolic praise on the English and finish by declaring that they, Donald and Michael, are "the flower of the English". It is pretty obvious to everyone this is not a song they take seriously, nor was ever intended to be, not least because the quintessentialy English Swann was a Welsh-born son of Russian parents escaping the Russian Revolution. In Tim and Duncan's rendition the ending and choruses have been changed, and the audience are encouraged to sing along. It was excrutiating. I looked around the white, middle class, middle aged audience, fulfilling all the stereotypes of the worst elitism of Oxford, and I nearly walked out, back home to East Oxford and the diversity of the Cowley Road.

Had Flanders and Swann been writing now they might still have written a song about nationalism and patriotic prejudice, or a fabulously funny debate about the pleasures and pitfalls of multiculturalism. But they never sought to divide and offend. Tim and Duncan might have captured the letter of Flanders and Swann. They may even have captured the note. But they surely haven't captured their spirit.
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