There are a few productions met with such a force of goodwill on the part of the audience that failure is an impossibility. The Hackney Empire’s production of Dad’s Army – drawing on original episodes transmitted but subsequently lost and, as a final treat, the famous episode with the captured U-boat commander – is certainly one of them.
It is not quite a play there’s no single narrative thread running from start to finish but four half-hour acts that might have been broadcast the night before, they seem so familiar. When the Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard marched a fraction raggedly onstage, the audience gave a delighted round of applause. The performances fall nicely between character studies and impressions of the original actors. Timothy Kightley as Captain Mainwaring is a dead ringer for Arthur Lowe, but more importantly captures the pathos and sense of honour that make the lead character likeable despite his pomposity. Thomas Richardson perfectly reproduces Pike’s fey sick-note whine, and as Corporal Jones Richard Tate carries off every catchphrase (don’t panic!) with relish. I’d feared that Leslie Grantham’s top billing as Private Walker would disturb the balance of the cast, but despite wearing the spiv’s moustache with aplomb Grantham’s performance was a generous one, never unnecessarily drawing the eye.
The set is spare, switching with hardly a moment’s notice between church hall and seafront, with just sufficient in the way of props to allow Kightley in particular to display a gift for physical comedy, and the supporting cast including a perfectly outraged Hodges and one or two elegant drag acts is excellent.
The scripts stand up well to the test of time, though undoubtedly requiring more investment then the twelve-jokes-per-minute, drafted-by-committee sitcoms we’re used to these days. It was a gentle evening, not a hilarious one, with as much emphasis on depth of character as on laughter. Goodwill buoyed the audience through any longueurs, and some could barely suppress yelling ‘Don’t tell him, Pike! at the climax. With any luck, those lost episodes will one day be found in an attic or a shed, and we’ll have the pleasure of them all over again; in the meantime, the new recruits will do almost as well.
Dad’s Army: The Lost Episodes will be at Hackney Empire until 16 February and then touring until June 2008