When it comes to performance, Ewan Wardrop knows his biscuits. He’s done it all on the stage – comedian, musician, dancer, and actor – all of which set him up rather nicely for his one man show exploring the life of George Formby.
Formby was an actor, singer-songwriter and comedian, who dazzled audiences in the 30s and 40s with his Ukulele, and lyrics brimming with euphemisms:
A fellow took my photograph it cost one and three.
I said when it was done, "Is that supposed to be me?"
"You've properly mucked it up the only thing I can see is
My little stick of Blackpool Rock.
The show opens with Beryl Ingham, Formby’s clog-dancing and ‘domineering’ wife, reading fan letters and deciding which are worthy of the attention of her husband. Then we’re taken on a whistle-stop tour of the key events in Formby’s life. We learn his father was a star of the Music Hall but wanted a different career for his son, so he was shipped off to Ireland to train as a jockey. He ran his first professional races at the age of 10, weighing in at just under 4 stone. A few years later, and feeling homesick for Wigan, Formby did a runner and attempted to sail back to the UK. Unfortunately, the stable master was on to his plans and was waiting for him at the dock. This turned out to be a decisive moment in his life as the ship was sunk by a German U Boat.
All of the action takes place on a sparse set that includes an armchair, table, lamp, microphone, a few props, and an array of ukuleles - but thanks to some imaginative improvisation and a few tweaks, they stand in for a variety of things. My personal favourite was the armchair, which at one point becomes a horse and later, thanks to some carefully concealed lights, a car. Wardrop is spellbinding, effortlessly flipping between key figures in Formby’s life with a quick change of prop. One minute he’s tap dancing, the next he’s on the battlefield entertaining the troops.
But what I took most out of this performance was the vital role Formby’s wife played in his career. Beryl Ingham, as an actor, won the All England Step Dancing title at the age of 11. With her sister she formed the dancing act ‘The Two Violets’. But like many women, she gave up her own successful career to focus on her husband’s. Formby would not have achieved the same level of success without her advice and training. For example, she taught him to imitate her complex dance routines in his ukulele playing, thereby bringing greater complexity and drama to his tunes. She advised on how to work the audience, worked on various songs and jokes, and persuaded him to formalise his stage dress to include a black tie. Without her, he would undoubtedly have remained another very talented but mediocre performer. Although I came to learn more about Formby, I left wanting to know more about his wife.
The show ended with a couple of Formby classics, with the entire auditorium joining in. There was even time for an encore. Nobody wanted the show to end – not even Wardrop! He asked if any ukulele players wanted to come up on stage and play and even waited at the exit to say goodbye to people. It was an absolutely beautiful evening of harmless fun that created a real sense of community and togetherness. As I left the auditorium a man informed me he’d seen Formby play Nottingham in the 1950s. Another couple, overhearing me confess that I had a ukulele but was yet to really play it, encouraged me to join their group. This was definitely an evening where ‘it’s turned out nice again’.
Formby was at Djanogly Theatre on Thursday 16 November 2017.