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With the self-penned Formby Ewan Wardrop has found a Fringe vehicle that perfectly showcases his expressive versatility, writes Dominic Cavendish.
Ewan Wardrop is surely bound to go far. He has already been a principal performer with Matthew Bourne's New Adventures and popped up in the right kind of projects with the right kind of theatre companies – Headlong, Complicite, Sheffield Crucible. Now, with the self-penned Formby he has found a Fringe vehicle that perfectly showcases his expressive versatility, his winning smile and his uncommon passion for the ukulele, which he was inspired to take up after falling in love with George Formby's films as a schoolkid.
That Formby was the biggest film star in the country for a time may come as news to those who regard him as a one-trick music-hall turn – and is only one of the fascinating aspects of his career that this jaunty, affectionate and often very funny resume takes in, along with his early days as a jockey and marriage to the terribly controlling clog-dancer Beryl Ingham, whom Wardrop evokes, to lip-pursing perfection, for good measure.
I could have done without the old-folk's-home-style singalong to When I'm Cleaning Windows and Leaning on a Lamp-Post as the finale. There's more material to relay and Wardrop is perhaps underestimating the little stick of theatrical dynamite he has in his hands here.
A good actor doesn't need much in the way of set or props. Ewan Wardrop doesn't even need any co-actors. 'Formby' is a one man play about George Formby's rise to success (remember him 'Cleaning Windows'?) and the people he meets along the way. However, all these people are played by the one man: using the likes of a pipe, a feather boa or even simply a tilt of a hat, Wardrop slickly and seamlessly morphs from one strikingly different person to another. Even while playing a ukulele his facial expressions mesmerise his audience and keep them locked into the characters' world. A simple set, a simple plot and simple characterisation, beautifully executed. [Rachel Campbell]
Ewan Wardrop's solo show about the life and career of George Formby follows a by-now familiar formula. But what sets this show apart is Wardrop's commitment to his cause and clear connection to his material.
A skilled banjolele player and adept physical comedian, he invests what could have been a fairly straightforward potted biography with warmth and energy. Wardrop crams in a lot of detail, hurtling through Formby's childhood, early days on stage, film career – during the Second World War he was the number one film star in Britain – and his wooing of and subsequent marriage to his domineering wife, Beryl.
The biographical passages are interspersed with spot-on renditions of Formby's songs and Wardrop's presence is such that Ed Hughes' production never feels static or stiff. The play allows the audience to grasp just what made Formby so appealing to wartime audiences and to also understand why this popularity quickly faded after the armistice, when people started craving a little more glamour.
It's testament to Wardop's appeal as a performer that by the end of the hour he has a Fringe audience of varying ages happily singing along to Leaning on a Lamppost without a trace of irony.
In this one man show, Ewan Wardrop plays the part of George Formby and various other characters telling the colourful life stories of this much loved entertainer. Wardrop, as Formby, addresses the audience directly as if recounting memoirs to the crowd, whilst various anecdotes are acted out as flashbacks; of course, a song is never far away. We hear of how the Lancashire born star's first career was as an unsuccessful Jockey over in Ireland before he came home and began to follow in his father's footsteps in the music halls. The narrative touches on the death of George Formby senior and how his son took on his mantle, before focusing on the younger George's marriage to Beryl Ingham and the influence she had in helping him become one of the foremost comic performers of his generation. Ewan Wardrop is exceptional and vastly talented. His performance as Formby alone is uncanny, exuding the charisma and likeability of the star with his instantly recognisable nasal northern drawl. He also demonstrates ample dexterity on the ukulele, is competent on the harmonica, adept at numerous accents and an annoyingly proficient tap dancer as well. However these are just the groundings of Wardrop's performance; a real highlight is his ability to play two entirely convincing characters in one dialogue simultaneously. With the subtle tilt of a hat, the odd prop here and there, and a lighting change the audience could be forgiven for imagining the stage to be overcrowded with people. The performance concludes with two of the comic singer's greatest hits that the crowd are invited to sing along to and they did so with gusto. The show is engaging as a story of 'an ordinary man with an extraordinary talent', but also stands alone as a hugely entertaining piece of theatre whether you are a Formby fan or not.
'Eeh, that lad will go far,' ran one of George Formby's catchphrases. It's easily applicable to the man who plays him in this brisk but absorbing, bite-sized bio play, Ewan Wardrop. The actor is required to sing, dance and jape his way through the role, not to mention the role of Formby's fearsome wife and manager Beryl. He does so with a aplomb, in a show that is a sprightly tribute to Britain's comedy megastar of the Thirties and Forties. Formby's simple set consists of a lamp, an armchair, a table and a stand for a number of banjos (one of them presumably a bona fide banjolele, the comedian's instrument of choice) and a ukulele.
It turns out that the armchair has hidden talents, doubling for a car and, opening out into a lazyboy: a neat metaphor for a dexterous show that skips through Formby's 56-year life, fuelled by Wardrop's inclusive, conversational style.
The journey begins with Formby's father, James Booth, musical hall comedian and original owner of the stage name George Formby. He has designs on his son being a jockey, but George would rather goof around with harmonica than ride winners.
After his father dies, the time is right to go into the family business, encouraged by his mother whose role as the dominant woman was to be taken on by dancer-turned-manger Beryl ('Never answer my questions, just wait for me to answer them,' she warns). As well as a serving as a reminder to just how huge Formby was, with a plethora of successful films and theatre revues, the play reminds us how he mastered the doubleentendre.
The iconic When I'm Cleaning Windows and Leaning on a Lamppost are left til the end and introduced with a nice line about how he can never get off stage without playing them. It's a careful ploy and indicative of the loving care taken with his subject, a study that avoids some of the more difficult things that have been said about his relationship with Beryl, for example.
Soft soaping done with a soft-shoe shuffle? Well, maybe, but as 60 minute broad brush strokes go, Formby will charm you.
"Wardrop mesmerises his audiences. Beautifully executed."
“Wardrop gives a tremendous performance... To deliver a show that is simply 'Champion'.”
“A little stick of theatrical dynamite.”
THE DAILY TELEGRAPH
"Wardrop is exceptionally talented. Exuding the charisma of the star."
"Formby will charm you."
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