Chris Eldon Lee review “Eric’s Pride and Prejudice”, which is at The New Victoria Theatre in Newcastle-under-Lyme until Saturday 9th December.
I’ve been to a couple of David Graham’s Christmas shows before – and to preserve my credibility as a supposedly professional critic, I have been tempted to wear a false beard and dark glasses (so as not to be recognised). But not anymore.
Launched 25 years ago as a slice of knockabout seasonal fun, these ‘Eric and Bev’ shows are as unmissable as Morecambe and Wise. The gags are milked dry. The repertoire of 60s highly clap-able songs is excellent. The musicianship is superb. The acting is right up there with Ernie Wise and, all in all, (as Eric Morecambe would say) the whole thing is ‘almost not bad’.
The lunatics have taken over The Nutcracker’s “Land of Sweets” and are literally having a ball…the ball attended by the five Bennett sisters in their mother’s quest to get them all married off. And if that sounds like a scene from ‘Pride and Prejudice’, well it is. For this Christmas, Jane Austen has the dubious honour of being sent up something rotten.
Like panto, the plot doesn’t really matter. But for the record; long suffering Bev (Laura Sheppard) has joined a book club and is reading that very novel. When the eternal Eric (played as droll ever by David Graham himself) dons his least holey socks to go down the pub, she falls asleep and dreams of being mother-of-five Mrs Bennett. From here on in, Austen fans need to grip the arms of their seats.
Surprisingly, the storyline is treated quite respectfully but every gag imaginable is wrought from it. Even the famous dripping shirt is included, though the source of the water is a little less sanitary. Husbands are the butt of many a joke. Mrs Bennett’s three-word summary of the wedding ceremony “Isle, Alter, Hymn” is a slow dawn-er; whilst her daughter Elizabeth ‘”loves simple things” but “doesn’t want to be married to one”.
Elizabeth is played by Carly Cook who puts in an especially fine performance, cracking straight-faced gags with a surly curl of her lip. More than once Graham pinches famous 60’s song lyrics to become period dialogue (The Carpenters and Gloria Gaynor suffer mercilessly here) and Carly delivers them with just enough of a knowing look to ensure the audience doesn’t miss the moment. Her sister Kitty is glamorously portrayed by Helen Spall, and both belt out the ballads like true rock and roll stars. Agnetha and Anni-Frid may retire gracefully.
In case you’re wondering what’s happened to the other sisters … well the hard-up David Graham Company simply couldn’t afford that many actors … and it is advisable for all bald-headed men with an aversion to crinoline to avoid sitting on the front row.
Of the men, Alan Howell is excellently doddery as old Mr Bennett and employs every commedia dell’arte character technique to keep the mirth rolling along … whilst Jake Byrom is played suitably smarmily as the comical Reverend Collins to ensure he doesn’t get the girl. It’s a clever double joke that has him singing The Beach Boys ‘God Only Knows’.
There are moments of contemplation. Eric says he often considers the here-after. “I walk into a room and think ‘What am I hear after?’”.
Pretty well everyone is in the band, which is truly cracking. The Beatles, Spencer Davis, Aretha Franklyn and Jeff Beck all get an authentic airing. The singing shakes the rafters and the audience stomps away. From my perch directly behind the drum kit, it all made for a thumping good night out.