They’re playing nostalgic Eighties chart-hits as the audience settles in for this teatime staging of the long-running, long-gone Radio 4 sketch series Radio Active (1980-1987). That helps wing us back to the period of the programme’s hey-day, when radioactivity, thanks to fears of nuclear annihilation, was a buzz-word.
Inevitably, a slight mist of melancholy hangs over this homecoming. Enjoying success with the Oxford student revue on the Fringe in 1979, the Radio Active troupe contained in their number future TV presenter Angus Deayton, now 60, and future kingpin comedy producer Geoff Perkins, who died in 2008.
The proposition is simple: Deayton, making his first return to the stage since the late Eighties, when he toured as Rowan Atkinson’s sidekick, and the three other surviving performers (Helen Atkinson Wood, Michael Fenton Stevens and Philip Pope) stand in front of microphones, scripts in hand, and deliver two specially compiled “episodes”. But it’s the back-stage story that fascinates as much as anything: what was it like then, how does it feel to re-unite? Not quite qualifying as “vintage”, this time-capsuled comedy could do with some accompanying chat.
It’s shame that Deayton, who took the initiative, does no more than his allotted parts require, staring out at us with the forlorn air of a man dreaming of some sun-kissed Mediterranean holiday. He’s looking good for his age though, and – what a pleasant surprise – albeit that it’s of its relatively tame period, there’s little that’s old and tired about the material. A fictional “national local radio station”, Radio Active’s inspired organising principle is that no presenter is too inept and no programme to misconceived to be denied air-time.
Cue bogus adverts, a Top 10 pop countdown so hobbled by dire DJing we’re left clueless as to what’s in the chart, a magisterially cock-eyed am-dram Dickens (“Martin Chizzlenut”) and a fantastically vapid discussion-show, hosted with consummate blandness by Deayton (“Is that fair?”, he keeps asking his guests, in decreasing circles of sense). There’s plenty more besides, including first-rate, merciless parodies of Status Quo (the three chaps air-guitaring away like school-boys) and the Bee Gees (“Meaningless Songs in Very High Voices”, the signature song of The Hee Bee Gee Bees, who became an album-making spin-off in their own right). Pope also brilliantly re-casts familiar Eighties chart hits, by Bucks Fizz, Rick Astley, Black Lace et al in the strangulated vocal style of Bob Dylan. In the space of a mere hour, melancholy has become fully translated into mirth. Applause, please.
Radio Active runs at the Pleasance Courtyard until August 28 (not 15). Tickets: 0131 623 3030; edfringe.com