I went to see Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at the Savoy, which seemed like a good idea and turned out not to be. The show has been running almost a year, and will close this Saturday, March 7th. Maybe the show was never perfect though it is hard to believe it was quite as full of tics and quirks when Chris Hart described it as ‘a scandalous delight’ in The Sunday Times last April. This is how long-running shows end, I thought, as I watched Robert Lindsay stick out his chin and gyrate a leg in the style of a lewd, ageing Lothario, miming a virility he no longer possesses. Then Lindsay did it again, and I had the exact same thought again. And so the show went on, with Lindsay all-too convincing in the role of a con-man with his best days behind him, and me, contemplating my mortality one leg-shake at a time. In the long run, we are all dead. At the end of a long run in the West End, maybe it just feels as though you are.
Robert Lindsay’s jutted chin and leg shake reminds me of the signature gesture of Bobby Ball, a northern comedian of the 70s and 80s who now plays Lee Mack’s dad in the sitcom, Not Going Out (and possibly in real-life, too). Bobby Ball’s ticcing leg signalled that, in his own head, he was still cock-of-the-walk, and raring to go. Lindsay may have been doing the bit with his leg since the start of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels’ run, but I doubt it. The stuff that creeps into a show gives itself away. Lindsay also throws a Hitler salute into the routine where he plays psychiatrist, Dr Shuffhausen, a familiar bit of business since Peter Sellers’ Dr Strangelove. The problem is, the accompanying song uses the Yiddish word ‘mensch’ and the idea that Shuffhausen is both Jewish and a Nazi suggests maybe Lindsay has not thought this through. He is throwing in stuff that he hopes will get a laugh – and sometimes it does, if the audience is old enough to recognise it.
I first saw Robert Lindsay as a teenager, when he used to act regularly at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. He loves audiences, and audiences love him back. He has never shown much respect for the idea of a ‘fourth wall’ and why should he? It’s just a piece of dogma and not a very useful one: the truth is, every new show has to decide what kind of relation to build with its audience. Lindsay could be brilliant at this – but not this time.
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels has fewer laughs than you would expect. Maybe this is why Lindsay started throwing in dated references to older comic turns, as though reprising his Old Vic success as Archie Rice. only this time for real. In playing to the audience, this show has become chock-full of random tics. At the end of a long run, perhaps the audience becomes too distant – like a weak radio signal, transmitting a message into the night, while the performers drift out of the show’s orbit and into deep space.
Rating: 2 Stars