With notes by Mr Lloyd, producer.
The first review appeared in the specialist Fringe review paper called Three Weeks, and it reads as follows:
The Adventures of Stoke Mandeville, Astronaut and Gentleman
Newcastle lawyer Graham suddenly finds himself in an alternate dimension alongside heroic agent Stoke Mandeville; together, they must foil a dastardly French plot whose tendrils extend right to the engineering wonder of the British Empire. Obviously owing a debt to 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen', 'The Goon Show' and anything by Jules Verne, the play creates a steampunk world with stereotypical Victorianisms which are marvellously parodied for ever-increasing laughs. Nikolas Lloyd revels in the role of the gentleman adventurer Mandeville, every inch the comic mythic hero and Richard Llewellyn displays great derring-do and versatility, while the charming Sarah Cleeve provides an effective foil for the pair's proto-macho banter. Fellow supporting players Scott Hutchinson and David Redcliff contribute a wide range of characters to the adventure, each funnier than the last. The script is rich with detail and dialogue, including a perfect 'Blues Brothers' parody. Pithy lines and pith helmets, steam-powered stellar carriages and stiff upper lips; marvellous! "Brace yourself!"
Augustine's, 13-26 (not 19), 9.50 pm (11pm), £6.50 (£4.50), fpp 108.
* * * *
Given how praising the text is, one wonders why we only got four, not the maximum five, stars, but no matter, this is a great review. A couple of days after reading this, I passed a comic shop and saw in the window a copy of a comic called 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen', to which I apparently owe a great debt. I had never heard of it before, and it was written years after we wrote Stoke Mandeville. I should have guessed that the review writer was a comic reader, because of his use of the term 'steampunk'.
The cast is pleased with the individual mentions, even if no-one knows what a foil for proto-macho banter actually is. Richard is of course delighted with 'derring-do', as he is a fight arranger, and wannabe swash-buckling matinee idol. We tease him for being praised for versatility, since he is the only one of us who plays just the one character.
A short while later, we got this second review, on a website called The Edinburgh Guide.
Madcap wild script - imagine Dick Barton, Spike Milligan, The Goons, The Goodies, Vivian Stanshall, and… Brace Yourself! Played in a tight, high-spirited style Writers Nikolas Lloyd and Fraser Charlton have created a wonderful, whacky play where a parallel universe collides with ours and two men switch places with results for all.
Plain, rather dull lawyer Graham Pennyworth, Richard Llewellyn, is returning from a lunch with a pushier lawyer Rachel when a traffic accident takes him a way into the company of Stoke Mandeville, Nikolas Lloyd (Gentleman Extraordinare) and his steam powered astral carriage which can navigate to the planets as well as crash land in Newcastle. Resembling Mandeville's fellow adventurer Carstairs, Pennyworth soon finds himself using more than Carstairs' name and is off on an adventure via Jupiter and other part of The Empire. The other actors David Redcliff, Scott Hutchison and Sarah Cleves provide support with variety of accents and personas, the only feature I didn't like was the persistent and not funny, fake laugh Cleve's characters all shared.
Full of lots of cunning jokes poking digs at today and our glorious British past, it's top quality in the writing. I recommend their excellent websites for a good, rollicking browse too, best one of the Fringe.
Thelma Good 15 August 2002.
The Edinburgh Guide has a unique way of rating shows. It goes from no drams (perfection) to five drams (unwatchably awful, and therefore you'll need five drams of whisky to last through it), giving a range of six possible scores. A one dram review is therefore I think equal to a four and a quarter stars out of five review.
The Scotsman had a piece about us in it. We missed it because it was not in the reviews section. A day late, we read the piece, by Robert McNeil. It read:
Robert McNeil: My Festival
Mayhem on the streets, so it's refreshing to find a show celebrating old fashioned values
I HAVE been out. In the evening. Oh yes. Taking my courage and some comforting fruit in both hands, I left the safety of Wit's End, ma hoose, and headed up town.
Riot and hullabaloo: not a firm of criminal solicitors but the scene that greeted me on the High Street. On one corner, atavistic clansmen in ochre cloaks and ragged plaid honked on bagpipes and banged faux-ancient drums in a malodorous dancing frenzy.
I'd last seen them, or similar buffoons, performing dervish-style for 10,000 right-wing Englishmen on a Countryside Alliance march through Scotland's capital. So embarrassing.
On another corner, an arguably stupid man was holding forth about "the poverty of atheism". A wide-eyed heckler shouted: "What about all these priests - buggering people up the arse?"
"I'm not listening to such language," said the preacher.
"Up the arse," added the man, for confirmation.
"Not listening," said the preacher, turning away with a set mouth.
This was madness. With the aid of a stout blackthorn stick, I bludgeoned my way through the ovine masses to see a show. Since nearly everything on the Fringe is a one-bird production about wimmin driven to breakdown by household chores, I was delighted to find something called The Adventures of Stoke Mandeville, Astronaut and Gentleman.
Billed as being "for all the family, except women", this sounded just the thing for the rigid-lipped chap feebly groping for a way out of this infernal post-feminist crisis.
And so it proved. In a parallel universe, where the British Empire holds sway (on Mars), a curious lack of morale has developed, one of the symptoms being that men are "confiding in each other". The French, with whom we are at war, are blamed. Some of their master-spies have even mastered whimsy.
Our cravat-wearing hero, S Mandeville Esq, is dispatched to sort it out, asking first of the audience: "Is there anyone here who speaks British?"
Such a bracing production. It invites us into an idyllic world where food is properly boiled, people waving their arms extravagantly are shot, and an invigorating shag refers to strong tobacco.
Playing Edinburgh, it could have done with a token Scotsman, drunk or otherwise. Nevertheless, we are happy to award it an official Hootsmon quote for use on posters, fliers etc: "At no point in the entire show did my pipe go out." (Scotsman)
Since the show was put on, three people have sent in reviews to EdFringe.com. Anyone can do this, and so it was tempting to send in glowing reviews myself, but I don't like to cheat. Here are the three reviews kindly sent in by genuine strangers.
I'm glad this chap liked the play, but feel that in our defence I should state that in fact the play tells the audience very precisely what the French super-agent was up to. I can't comment on narrative focus, because I don't know what it is.
***** Best Thing I saw at the Fringe 02 Sep 2002
reviewer: Angela Mott country: UK
Wow, this was a fast paced and energetic performance and if there was any such thing as a festival God I'd be pretty cross with it;
The Original wit contained within is obviously not 'fasionable' enough with the media reviewers because this show deserves a much bigger audience than it got.
I was only down at the fringe a couple of days so didn't think tickets out ahead. This fortuitous gem made the whole thing worthwile.
Well-done, I hope they'll be second helpings with lashings of custard!
**** Huzzah! 02 Sep 2002
reviewer: Michael Hall country: UK
Loved it. A fantastically imaginitive script, and really funny performances. Only the second time I saw it (with the surprise appearance of some French infiltrators in the audience) did I start to notice any flaws - even though the performances were much more assured. The plot is not very focused, and we never get much of an idea of the full machinations of the promised French super spy. But with exchanges like: "Nothing can go faster than the speed of light." "Yes, I remember some chap from Berlin going on about that. But he didn't take into account good British engineering." I can forgive any loss of narrative focus. I hope this is not the last the Fringe will see of Stoke and Graham. Brace yourself!
***** "Brace yerselves!" 27 Aug 2002
reviewer: James Tarbit country: England
This was BRILLIANT. I didn't really know what to expect (I had been prompted to see the show by both my friends, and the sight of a man in full khaki attire wandering down the Mile wearing a BIG beard, and smoking a pipe), but whatever my expectations were, they were exceeded!
The show is essentially a big homage to good old English values, and ya boo sucks to the Frenchies. It was sterling, stirring stuff with laughs aplenty, and even random people with accordions being show by members of the audience! (Something which, I learned afterwards, the cast had expected about as much as me! Ah, directorial jokes...) I think the highlight had to be when Stoke managed to convince us that the yard was the centre of the universe - pop up formula and all, or when he won a slanging match against one of the ubiquitous (if the plot is to be believed) Gallic spies by yelling "Yeah?..Well at least I'm not French!" This show deserves to be performed again and again. There really is something for everyone.
I suppose I should explain that on one night I arranged a little surprise for the rest of my cast. I had seen a show earlier that day that included an accordion player. He had seen our show and liked it, and we hatched a plot. He would start playing his accordion at a moment specified by me, and then colleagues of his would chase him out of the theatre. In the event, they did this with great gusto and hugely enjoyed themselves, wearing bad false moustaches, and shouting "French scum!" Scott, who was arriving on stage to do his narration while this was going on, rose to the occasion magnificently, made understated reference to this "little interlude", and carried on. "Lloyd!" he said, on coming off the stage, "You're a bastard!".
Laura Davies, wrote the following revue of the Cambridge Production in the The Cambridge Student, on 27th February 2003.
In a world where the Conservatives have actually managed to organise themselves an election victory, Lenin was but a goateed enthusiast and not only Italy and Spain, but also our moderate friends over the Atlantic have voluntarily joined the British Empire, two gentlemen set about defending the realm against "the perils of the French menace". Stoke Mandeville (Matt Stevens) and Carstairs Macdonald (Robin Holden) are the men for the job.
Trouble is, in this parallel universe, old Blighty has gone and colonised the solar system by means of an ingenious system of steam powered space travel, the mole francais has infiltrated the Ministry of Manners and Carstairs isn't Carstairs at all, but rather one Graham Pennyworth, lawyer and one time diner in what seemed a perfectly safe French restaurant in Liverpool. On this important mission they plan to achieve victory by means only of "pipe smoking, pugilism and properly boiled food".
Owen Monie, Hannah Meyer and Richard Roberts work hard, each playing at least two roles. Meyer in particular must be congratulated for her chameleon-like transformations from tough-talking lawyer to obeisant servant all the way to cockney workman and then marble-mouthed narrator.
Thanks to their skill and the jocular camaraderie between Stevens and Holden, the pace doesn't falter and our attention doesn't wander. Fraser Charlton and Nikolas Lloyd based their script on the 1880 discovery of the Isambard Kingdom Brunel notebooks and his ideas for a space-craft, and it is excellent. Well-crafted comically and subtle in its detail, the banter is sustained and also boasts some truly inspired moments; most notably perhaps, the cricket game commentary concerned only with the level of hat doffing skill on display and the revelation that the sixth moon of Jupiter is in fact named New Basingstoke.
There are times when one feels the sound effects would be more appropriate to an aerobics class, and the stage feels a little under-used because of the sparse set and the frequent scene changes. But the fabulous spacecraft control panel, complete with blinking lights and moving dials, more than makes up for these details. Quite frankly, given the subject-matter, the more that is left to the imagination the better. Supported by wonderfully melodramatic lighting and some witty props, the cast is able to evoke an extraterrestrial gentlemen's club with the same ease as a Liverpool office or an alternative cricket pitch. Even the notion of a tea tanker seems momentarily probable. This comedy handful is ideal as a late show, and despite the prohibition of "ladies" and "persons of a French nature" on their publicity, it is eminently suitable for all the family. Have a few drinks first though, and don't expect high art.
In common with other reviewers, this one found it necessary to start with some general preamble about the British Empire. The three supporting cast members play at least seven parts each. I am fascinated to learn that I and Fraser are students, and that we based our script on a completely fictional space-craft design in Brunel's notebooks. That idea was planted in the reviewer's head by some promotional nonsense in the production's programme. The winner of the spot-the-influence competition is the publisher Samuel French for spotting the mark of The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It may surprise people to learn that another major influence was my having once flicked through a rule-book for a role-play game called Space 1889.