In the queue for Spencer Jones – with Richard Osman also waiting to get in – I couldn’t help thinking ‘please don’t sit in front of me’. I was also thinking if the show’s good enough for Mr Osman… That coupled with the excited buzz being generated by the waiting audience gave me the feeling I was in for something special.
Please don’t think me a deliberate late-comer to the Spencer Jones party – I was all set to see The Herbert in Proper Job last year at The Hive but it was cancelled on the night I went due to technical problems. I’m getting my disclaimer in early because reviewing the show a year on from the awards and the rave reviews what’s there left to say? I could say Spencer Jones is the new Tommy Cooper with shades of Mr Bean – but that’s all been said already. Those comparisons are completely valid – the collection of daft props; the mastery of nonverbal communication. I’ll throw in a few other references if I may though – Max Wall (the outfit); Moe from The Three Stooges (the hair) and Frank Spencer (the storyline). The last one definitely as the Herbert man-child has to face up to family responsibilities and find a job (in a nuclear power plant so a bit like Homer Simpson?).
As I’ve demonstrated there – there’s nothing new under the sun. See any comedian and you can say ‘isn’t he/she a bit like… ?’ It can be downright plagiarism masquerading as a ‘tribute’ or it can be a lovingly crafted act informed by a deep love for what went before. Of course he/she could be in either camp and the audience could still be left cold. People like Tommy Cooper didn’t debut on telly as fully formed national-treasures. They worked the Variety circuit and faced the tough audiences who more often than not would respond with ‘What the hell is he meant to be doing?’ Cut to the pinnacle of a career and that same comedian can faff about and the audience will love it. It’s all about currency. So does Spencer Jones have comedy currency? Judging by the joyous reaction of the audience he’s well on the way to building up a healthy balance.
The show itself is unbridled silliness with Spencer displaying impeccable clowning technique. However there are vivid streaks of poignancy and almost macabre surrealism (due to the job at the power plant his baby is born with a the head of a fox) which makes you think you’ve wandered into experimental theatre as performed by an existentialist company from Chernobyl. The next minute we’re snapped out of the mood with a cheery ‘He’s my boy, I love him all the same’.
The big question is can Spencer take the Herbert to the mainstream? He’s already made it to the BBC in other guises and Harry Hill has proved that silly surrealism does get a chance on prime-time TV. The bigger question is however does Spencer want to take the Herbert to the mainstream? The show is very much a theatrical experience and so much would be lost in the confines of a TV studio with the audience possibly asking: ‘What the hell is he meant to be doing?’.
My guess is Spencer Jones is going to do very well – in whatever guise. Meaning that the Herbert may remain a rare live treat. That could be enough to prompt you to go along but you’d also get to see the work of a great natural clown and be imbued with the classic existentialist message of always looking on the bright side of life – however dark things get. More simply you will just have a great time.
(Review for 24 Aug)