With the self-penned Formby Ewan Wardrop has found a Fringe
vehicle that perfectly showcases his expressive versatility, writes
Ewan Wardrop is surely bound to go far. He has already been a principal
performer with Matthew Bourne's New Adventures and popped up in the right
kind of projects with the right kind of theatre companies – Headlong,
Complicite, Sheffield Crucible. Now, with the self-penned Formby he has
found a Fringe vehicle that perfectly showcases his expressive versatility, his
winning smile and his uncommon passion for the ukulele, which he was
inspired to take up after falling in love with George Formby's films as a
That Formby was the biggest film star in the country for a time may come as
news to those who regard him as a one-trick music-hall turn – and is only one
of the fascinating aspects of his career that this jaunty, affectionate and often
very funny resume takes in, along with his early days as a jockey and
marriage to the terribly controlling clog-dancer Beryl Ingham, whom Wardrop
evokes, to lip-pursing perfection, for good measure.
I could have done without the old-folk's-home-style singalong to When I'm
Cleaning Windows and Leaning on a Lamp-Post as the finale. There's more
material to relay and Wardrop is perhaps underestimating the little stick of
theatrical dynamite he has in his hands here.
A good actor doesn't need much in the way of set or props. Ewan Wardrop
doesn't even need any co-actors. 'Formby' is a one man play about George
Formby's rise to success (remember him 'Cleaning Windows'?) and the people
he meets along the way. However, all these people are played by the one man:
using the likes of a pipe, a feather boa or even simply a tilt of a hat, Wardrop
slickly and seamlessly morphs from one strikingly different person to another.
Even while playing a ukulele his facial expressions mesmerise his audience and
keep them locked into the characters' world. A simple set, a simple plot and
simple characterisation, beautifully executed. [Rachel Campbell]
Ewan Wardrop's solo show about the life and career of George Formby
follows a by-now familiar formula. But what sets this show apart is Wardrop's
commitment to his cause and clear connection to his material.
A skilled banjolele player and adept physical comedian, he invests what could
have been a fairly straightforward potted biography with warmth and energy.
Wardrop crams in a lot of detail, hurtling through Formby's childhood, early days
on stage, film career – during the Second World War he was the number one film
star in Britain – and his wooing of and subsequent marriage to his domineering
The biographical passages are interspersed with spot-on renditions of Formby's
songs and Wardrop's presence is such that Ed Hughes' production never feels
static or stiff. The play allows the audience to grasp just what made Formby so
appealing to wartime audiences and to also understand why this popularity quickly
faded after the armistice, when people started craving a little more glamour.
It's testament to Wardop's appeal as a performer that by the end of the hour he
has a Fringe audience of varying ages happily singing along to Leaning on a
Lamppost without a trace of irony.
In this one man show, Ewan Wardrop plays the part of George Formby and various
other characters telling the colourful life stories of this much loved entertainer.
Wardrop, as Formby, addresses the audience directly as if recounting memoirs to
the crowd, whilst various anecdotes are acted out as flashbacks; of course, a song
is never far away. We hear of how the Lancashire born star's first career was as an
unsuccessful Jockey over in Ireland before he came home and began to follow in
his father's footsteps in the music halls. The narrative touches on the death of
George Formby senior and how his son took on his mantle, before focusing on the
younger George's marriage to Beryl Ingham and the influence she had in helping
him become one of the foremost comic performers of his generation.
Ewan Wardrop is exceptional and vastly talented. His performance as Formby
alone is uncanny, exuding the charisma and likeability of the star with his instantly
recognisable nasal northern drawl. He also demonstrates ample dexterity on the
ukulele, is competent on the harmonica, adept at numerous accents and an
annoyingly proficient tap dancer as well. However these are just the groundings of
Wardrop's performance; a real highlight is his ability to play two entirely convincing
characters in one dialogue simultaneously. With the subtle tilt of a hat, the odd prop
here and there, and a lighting change the audience could be forgiven for imagining
the stage to be overcrowded with people. The performance concludes with two of
the comic singer's greatest hits that the crowd are invited to sing along to and they
did so with gusto. The show is engaging as a story of 'an ordinary man with an
extraordinary talent', but also stands alone as a hugely entertaining piece of theatre
whether you are a Formby fan or not.
'Eeh, that lad will go far,' ran one of George Formby's catchphrases. It's easily applicable
to the man who plays him in this brisk but absorbing, bite-sized bio play, Ewan Wardrop.
The actor is required to sing, dance and jape his way through the role, not to mention the
role of Formby's fearsome wife and manager Beryl. He does so with a aplomb, in a show
that is a sprightly tribute to Britain's comedy megastar of the Thirties and Forties.
Formby's simple set consists of a lamp, an armchair, a table and a stand for a number of
banjos (one of them presumably a bona fide banjolele, the comedian's instrument of
choice) and a ukulele.
It turns out that the armchair has hidden talents, doubling for a car and, opening out into a
lazyboy: a neat metaphor for a dexterous show that skips through Formby's 56-year life,
fuelled by Wardrop's inclusive, conversational style.
The journey begins with Formby's father, James Booth, musical hall comedian and original
owner of the stage name George Formby. He has designs on his son being a jockey, but
George would rather goof around with harmonica than ride winners.
After his father dies, the time is right to go into the family business, encouraged by his
mother whose role as the dominant woman was to be taken on by dancer-turned-manger
Beryl ('Never answer my questions, just wait for me to answer them,' she warns).
As well as a serving as a reminder to just how huge Formby was, with a plethora of
successful films and theatre revues, the play reminds us how he mastered the doubleentendre.
The iconic When I'm Cleaning Windows and Leaning on a Lamppost are left til the end
and introduced with a nice line about how he can never get off stage without playing them.
It's a careful ploy and indicative of the loving care taken with his subject, a study that
avoids some of the more difficult things that have been said about his relationship with
Beryl, for example.
Soft soaping done with a soft-shoe shuffle? Well, maybe, but as 60 minute broad brush
strokes go, Formby will charm you.