Wat-er way to spend a couple of hours at the theatre

Review by Paul Nelson


EVERY once in a while (and that is rapidly becoming once in a blue moon) my belief that the end is nigh for the theatre is arrested and I am given another shot of adrenaline by the appearance of a consummate artist who makes up for all the preceding dross.

Such a delight is Stefan Bednarczyk, whose solo show at The Jermyn Street Theatre An Evening of Flanders and Swann, is a captivating night consisting of genuine amusement seasoned with just a little nostalgia.

I recall many of the Flanders and Swann pastiches written for revues, revues such as were presented in the Laurier Lister days at the Royal Court before it got serious.

I think I went to see Max Adrian, Betty Marsden and Pat Lancaster in Airs on a Shoestring more than a dozen times.

I wasn't so enamoured of Fresh Airs, which followed it, but I have to say I wish we still had small shows of such calibre that could make the youth of today sit up and realise what wit, style and glamour really are.

Major contributors to these revues were Michael Flanders (Lyrics) and Donald Swann (Music); though the collaboration is so close, I am unsure that they could be split up in such a way.

They were an extremely unlikely coupling, who wrote with the deadly accuracy of a modern day Exocet when they wanted to push a point, yet also managed to use a feather to just the same effect.

These two were lifelong friends. They met at Westminster School, both went to Christ Church, Oxford and after a spell at the Oxford Playhouse, the war saw Flanders serving in a destroyer, and Swann with the Friends Ambulance Unit. An attack of polio put Flanders in a wheelchair.

This was no deterrent and their collaboration and rapport to anyone who saw them perform their own material, was one of such bliss that words fail most people who try to recall their impact on an audience.

Stefan Bednardczyk is a young man with a very long pedigree. I have seen him at least seven times, and once after a performance, had a drink with him in the theatre's local across the road. My genuine admiration for him as a performer was always under control until, that is, this week, when his solo show proved once and for all that we are dealing here with a major theatrical force.

For a start, he is a master at accompanying himself at the piano, and indeed other people, as I have witnessed in previous shows at the Jermyn Street Theatre and in the Phil Willmott series of Dick Barton spoofs in which he toured. He has also appeared in plays, in shows on both the Fringe and the West End, and many other parts of this country and the globe generally.

For this show at the JST, he starts modestly with a Song of the Sea followed by that perfect joke about the London buses, A Transport of Delight.

Effectively he has rediscovered a song that is probably more apt now than when it was written, and which the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, would do well to heed, What Are We Going To Do About London?

Several F&S (well why not? G&S is perfectly acceptable) favourites are not bypassed. You have The Gasman Cometh, Misalliance (that's the one about the honeysuckle and the bindweed - one twining to the left, the other to the right), Bedstead Men, a song about dropping all your rubbish into any stretch of water you can find, and before the interval a brilliant number I never thought I would hear again. Guide to Britten is an affectionate yet cutting appraisal of the works of one Benjamin.

The second half starts with reminiscences of fragments of songs that never were, and these fragments are interspersed with some genuine hits including the delightful Rockall, Have Some Madeira M'Dear, the Mozart Horn Concerto spoof, Sounding Brass, and the sentimental retrospective of railway stations axed by Beeching, Slow Train.

The entire evening is peppered with, of course, small, too small, interpolations of The Bestiary of F&S. You get The Ostrich, The Sloth, The Armadillo, The Elephant and The Gnu, the latter written by Flanders because his disabled parking space was always taken when he arrived home, by a car which had the registration number *** GNU. He always asked the audience if anyone knew the owner of the said car but never found out.

So with Stefan's personal connections with the widows of the two men, Claudia Flanders and Alison Smith Swann, both of whom he swears either persuaded or bullied him into doing this present show, the evening becomes an object lesson as to how you can hold an audience spellbound for two hours with only yourself, a piano and a bottle of Evian.

Well-done Mr Bednarczyk! When you have done this show everywhere else, come back and entertain us with the next wheeze that I am sure you have up your sleeve. I'll be there.

An Evening of Flanders and Swann starring Stefan Bednarczyk. Presented by Jermyn Street Theatre at The Jermyn Street Theatre. Devised by Stefan Bednarczyk (with the aid of Claudia Flanders and Alison Smith Swann). Lighting Designer Phil S Hunter. January 22 - February 16. Evenings at 7.30pm (NOT Mondays) Sundays at 4pm. Box Office 020 7287 2875.