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Hats Off! ... Flanders & Swann in SA

First appeared
Thursday, 27 June 2013


The big drawcard at Montecasino last weekend was John Cleese. The Monte Python and Fawlty Towers star had promised to give an account of his life and work – albeit both necessarily abridged and comically digressive – via conversation with radio host John Maytham and a Q&A session with the audience.

Few of those sitting in the spacious Teatro auditorium would have guessed that, to gain further insight into Cleese’s career and its place in the history of British comedy, they could walk around the corner to Pieter Toerien’s more modest Studio Theatre. There they would have found Jonathan Roxmouth and Louis Zurnamer performing Hats Off!, an irreverent tribute to the musical duo of Michael Flanders and Donald Swann.

While Spike Milligan and his Goon Show colleagues are more obvious precursors to Cleese and the Python gang, Flanders and Swann could be seen as equally important pioneers in the brand of British humour that developed in the decades after the Second World War. Their songs and monologues were occasionally politically incorrect or risqué, sometimes acutely satirical, frequently absurd and always wittily wordy.

Of course, they can be viewed as part of an established musical-comedy tradition, stretching back via Noel Coward to the music hall shows of the nineteenth century and, in a different Victorian manifestation, Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas (a lineage acknowledged by Roxmouth and Zurnamer when they insert an extract from the patter song in Ruddigore).

Although their last performance together was in 1967, the late Flanders and Swann have a worldwide following – particularly, outside the UK and the US, in Commonwealth countries like South Africa where the self-parodying “Englishness” of their music simultaneously affirms and mocks cultural connections to Britain.

Roxmouth and Zurnamer have undertaken an ambitious renovation of these musical sketches. At the start of Hats Off!, they make it clear that they will not simply be “playing the hits of Flanders and Swann”; if that were the aim, they suggest, a record (or a CD or MP3) would suffice. Nor do they simply impersonate Michael Flanders and Donald Swann – who were, after all, fairly static on stage: Swann sat behind the piano and Flanders, having contracted polio during the War, sat in a wheelchair.

Instead, they play Jonathan and Louis playing Michael and Donald. Roxmouth/Flanders is dominant, the frontman and wordsmith and clown, while Zurnamer/Swann is his wry verbal sparring partner, harmonist and more-than-accompanist. Camp innuendo, well-choreographed foolery and some very silly hats take us quite far from the familiar bowties-and-dinner-jackets image of Flanders and Swann, but we are never far from them in spirit.

We are, nonetheless, appreciably removed from their milieu in both space and time. Roxmouth and Zurnamer are at pains to make this show local and contemporary, a process of adaptation and translation that mostly pays off. Both the banter between songs and a number of the songs themselves are adjusted to fit the South African scene (there are even snatches of Zulu and Afrikaans).

This aim does, however, prove problematic in a few instances. “The Reluctant Cannibal”, for example, includes a sustained impersonation of Julius Malema in which Roxmouth skirts the deeply offensive blackface convention. Unfortunately, ethnic caricaturing – a common feature of all those examples of British humour listed above – is part of Flanders and Swann’s comic arsenal. “Songs for Our Time” starts with a joke about how hard it is to say “No” in Tongan (a jest that compounds the caricature with a light-hearted reference to rape).

But perhaps it’s unfair to review this revue in such an earnest way. It must be said in defence of Flanders and Swann that their anti-jingoistic impulses trump whatever national or masculine chauvinism one might find in their work. Ultimately, most of their songs are innocuous – indeed, half of them are about animals.

Roxmouth and Zurnamer, moreover, take neither themselves nor their subjects very seriously. The title, Hats Off!, is a nod to the shows and albums that made Flanders and Swann famous (At the Drop of a Hat and At the Drop of Another Hat) and it implies a gesture of respect. Yet this is no deferential homage; during the course of the show, one by one, the hats are tossed across the stage. 


* Hats Off! has opened at the Theatre on the Bay in Cape Town and runs until 7 July.



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