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Horlicks and Armageddon
Published on Friday, 10 May 2013

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5 stars

Old Police Cells Museum (venue website)
7-8, 13-15 May, 8:00pm-9:45pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

 Suitable for age 18+ only.

In a bunker-like basement below Brighton’s Town Hall, musician Sarah Angliss and actor Colin Uttley invite us to share their curiously retro apocalypse. It’s hard to comprehend now, but for a whole generation – their generation – the constant threat of nuclear war hung over a tense and fractured planet. And if the four-minute warning had gone off, the future of humanity might have depended on people like us: cowering in shelters, isolated, and underground.

Compared to Angliss’ previous award-winning shows, Horlicks and Armageddon is less of a music recital and more of a talk with tunes.  The songs she does include are as offbeat and haunting as ever, and she’s brought along her trademark arsenal of exotic home-made instruments: a talking ventriloquist’s dummy, a robot drummer, a computer-controlled peal of bells.  But she proves, too, an engaging and entertaining speaker, weaving her personal life story around the sights and sounds of what now seems a long-gone age.

Angliss has a magpie’s eye for the ephemera of history, and she’s unearthed plenty of exhibits for her nuclear show-and-tell.  There’s a clip from the notorious 1960’s docu-drama, The War Game, whose production values seem laughable by modern standards but which still holds the power to chill.  There’s the bizarre tale of the Farmer family, who volunteered to test a British nuclear shelter by entombing themselves for weeks underground.  And there’s an astonishingly grim cartoon from a 1980 children’s annual, which shows better than any History Channel documentary just how clear and present the danger of extinction must have seemed; as Angliss observes, when she was at school, few of her classmates expected to see the year 2013.

But it was after the interval that I felt Horlicks and Armageddon truly shone.  Co-host Colin Uttley tells a different side to the story, playing a volunteer with the Royal Observer Corps whose painful duty was to abandon his family at a time of war.  There’s an entertaining “science bit”, where Uttley cracks out a Geiger counter to explore the radioactivity of everyday life.  And Angliss’ personal narrative comes to an unexpectedly gut-wrenching conclusion – one which reminds us that for many young men and women, the war game was far too real.

There’s no way to pigeonhole Horlicks and Armageddon: it’s science and history, music and theatre, a patchwork quilt stitched together from many different cloths.  But the show’s underpinned by a genuinely fascinating story, and cemented by its morbidly compelling theme.  At the end, when I climbed the stairs out of the crowded basement, I savoured my first lungfuls of fresh air.  And I found myself fancifully relieved by the most everyday of discoveries: to see that Brighton, despite everything, was still there.

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