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Learn To Play The Ukulele In Under An Hour
Written by Richard Stamp   
Published on Sunday, 17 August 2008

THIS SHOW IS ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE to review.  Not because it defies categorization, or is hard to summarize in the necessary few words - though both those things are true.  No, the difficulty's a practical one: you can't take notes while strumming a ukulele.  So I'm working from memory, dear reader, and I hope you'll excuse any small uncertainties which arise along the way.

Yes, it's all true: you really do get to play your very own musical instrument, handed out as you head into the Gilded Balloon... though whether, as the title promises, you learn to play it depends on how quick a pupil you are.  I'm ashamed to say that personally, I didn't progress beyond the chords of C7 and A minor.  But it was fun to strum and the educational parts of the session were well-designed, supported by the ukulele equivalent of a karaoke machine and enthusiastically run by Sam Brown and Donal Coonan, the double-act on stage.

Yet a music lesson does not a Fringe show make.  So the tutorial was justified by a strange and sometimes bamboozling back-story, where Sam - depressed after his father's death - is rescued by the perpetually-cheerful ghost of ukulele God, George Formby.  I'd assumed the yarn was entirely made up, until a dedication to Mr Brown Senior appeared on-screen at the very end; and to be honest, now I don't know what to make of it at all.  I'm sincerely sorry if I'm trampling on real personal grief but, as a way of structuring the show, it just didn't work for me.

More successful, though, are the interspersed film clips - taken as the protagonists attend a meeting of the George Formby Appreciation Society.  In the process, Sam and Donal learn of the battle of wills between it and Formby's unofficial biographer; they flip from side to side in the debate as they delve, in the style of conspiracy theorists, into the most implausibly murky of worlds.  It's a neat idea, an adventurous move to include undercover footage - and a tribute to the show that I've bothered to go online to check that at least some of what they said was true.

I'm glad I went to this show; I had a good time, and I've always been in favour of embracing the weird.  Ultimately though, the two men on stage have tried just a bit too hard.  It was a strumming lesson, a sham documentary, and a personal narrative rolled into one; and while any two of these might well have worked, there wasn't room in 55 minutes for three.  As a result, everything felt a little under-developed and the comic potential of the Appreciation Society, for example, went almost entirely unexplored.

Still, Sam and Donal are loveable and polished performers, and the learn-to-play gimmick is truly inspired.  There is a great show in the making here; it's just that, like the ghost of Formby hiding in Sam's cupboard, it will take a little patience to bring it out.

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