Robert Wilson spoke of his ideal theatre as a marriage of the silent film and the radio play – an odd artistic aspiration, perhaps, but one that appealingly harnesses the scope of imagination necessary in experiencing each of those mediums. There is something equally odd and yet fascinating about the staging of a radio play, where the imaginary scenes conjured by the interplay of voices and sound effects are collided with the overt artifice of the recording studio. It is this strange collision that audiences are offered in the first of two staged episodes of Hancock’s Half Hour, providing a dusty but quaintly endearing trip back in time.
Reviving two of Ray Galton and Alan Simpson’s scripts from the 1950s and 60s comedy, Hambledon Productions contrast one of the early radio episodes with a later episode written for television, both of which were thought to be lost until the original scripts were retrieved from Galton’s cellar. The pair of standalone, unrelated plot lines are pure, predictable early sitcom; the unlucky protagonist first unsuccessfully attempts to take a fortnight’s holiday in Brighton in the depths of winter, then is thwarted in his aim to hire a housekeeper. It is gentle, dimly familiar and inevitably of its time, conjuring an age of comedy that now seems as grainy as the pictures it was first broadcast in.
With this qualification, however, and whether or not the slightly creaking comedy is to everyone’s taste, the piece undeniably succeeds in its own aims. John Hewer uncannily captures the comedy persona of Tony Hancock, down to every last grimace and sigh, while the production around him might as well be a time capsule. Having taken the leading role in the West End production of Round the Horne Revisited, director Jonathan Rigby has previous experience with this museum-like process of re-assembling, creating a meticulous portrait of a now extinct style of comedy. While it neglects to interrogate its material, if simply regarded as faithful yet cheeky homage the production is difficult to fault.
Although the television episode – complete with grinning asides and carefully observed set – elicits more laughs from the audience, it is the radio recording that most successfully entertains the museum-specimen fascination of this rewinding of time. Clutching scripts and standing at mics, the cast exchange little looks and playfully half act out the scenes, flirting with the layers of imagination and theatricality at play. This never moves beyond flirtation into a full excavation of the form, however, content for the most part to re-enact rather than question. Like Christmas television repeats played to the belly-laughing delight of slightly inebriated grandparents, Hancock’s Half Hour is nostalgia several times distilled; smile-kindling and comforting, but departing with the faintest trace of disappointment.