Travel tale finds laughs along the way - The Leamington Observer

Travel tale finds laughs along the way

THE FRIENDLY but mildly caustic observations on Britain and the British by an outsider with a backpack and a neat line in comedy, stop off at The Talisman as Bill Bryson’s Notes From a Small Island arrives on the stage.

Employing a mixture of passages lifted from the book and rapid stage personifications of some of the characters detailed in its pages, the show is fast-paced, colourful and – in terms of gags per minute – good value.

Steve Smith’s brisk, unrelenting direction speeds us through author Bryson’s first encounter with these shores, through work years, family, and on to a second road trip aimed principally at filling the pages of what became, over here at least, his breakthrough title.

The cast of those coming under the writer’s eye is aided by a versatile and eye-catching design and a real tour-de-force effort from the technical team in providing hundreds of lighting changes and sound cues.

A change at the mid-point from expectant young traveller to more world weary reviewer brings not only a change in actor but a shift in the nature of the jokes. Where young Bill was happy to see excitement in some of Britain’s deficiencies, older Bill doesn’t hold back on scathing criticism bordering occasionally on scorn.

The two Bills – Matt Baxter and Alan Wales – both perform well in bringing to life a script which relies too heavily on chunks of narration rather than theatrical dialogue. But the true stars are the supporting company charging through numerous roles with terrific gusto and unrestrained fun.

Regional stereotypes are turned up to the maximum even for the briefest of appearances. Disinterested usherette, overbearing landlady, loudmouth yuppie, nerdy Welshman, incomprehensible Scot, dour Yorkshiremen and so on.

The quick-fire nature of the characters is ideally suited to the material on offer as Mr Bryson’s wryly observant humour holds up piece after piece of British life to provide a laugh without ever getting beyond the cheerily superficial.

Observational comedians down the years have always known a rich vein of drollery comes from pointing out the oddities  and eccentricities in behaviour. Poking fun at cricket, morris dancing, train-spotting or the weather will always get laughs without needing much work

Mr Bryson’s books sold well when they first appeared and remain favourites of many, and his legion of fans won’t be disappointed by this adaptation.

There’s a rousing ending of sorts – rolling hills, fine words and Vaughan Williams – but the feeling is that this gentle teasing has been the kindest of mirrors held up to us not a microscope.

Matthew Salisbury


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