70s comedy Up Pompeii still raises a titter at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City

Hannah Sayer as Suspenda, Paul Russell as Lurcio, and Chris White as Ludicrus in Up Pompeii

Hannah Sayer as Suspenda, Paul Russell as Lurcio, and Chris White as Ludicrus in Up Pompeii at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City. - Credit: John Davies

Keith Thompson reviews Up Pompeii which can be seen at the Barn Theatre in WGC until Saturday, January 22.

Hannah Sayer as Suspenda, Paul Russell as Lurcio, Chris White as Ludicrus, Jane Southey as Ammonia, Hannah Humbles as Erotica

Hannah Sayer as Suspenda, Paul Russell as Lurcio, Chris White as Ludicrus, Jane Southey as Ammonia, and Hannah Humbles as Erotica in Up Pompeii at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City. - Credit: John Davies

To combat the gloom of Covid, the artistic director of the Barn Theatre, Clive Weatherley, put together a season dominated by comedy.

He included Up Pompeii, a stage version of the popular TV series of the early 1970s written by Talbot Rothwell of Carry On fame.

Would this compilation of familiar humour and double entendres fill the bill?

Paul Russell as Lurcio, the scheming slave originally played by Frankie Howerd, revelled in a combination of puns, pale blue comments, asides and direct challenges to the audience to either respond to the gags or alternatively admonish them for jumping to saucy conclusions, and chatted to the stage crew when he thought they needed a bit of help.

On stage for most of the action, this was a delightful display of versatility and control filled with clearly signposted opportunities for laughs.

Chris White played Ludicrus, the Senator, as an ineffective husband aiming to set up a liaison while his wife, Ammonia, played by Jane Southey, who was also thinking of straying, was away. 

Most Read

Corneous (Carl Westmoreland) and Nausius (Alfie White) completed the household as a lazy slave and a dim-witted son writing terrible poetry. 

The comely daughter Erotica (Hannah Humbles) was writing ambiguous letters, to the consternation of her parents. 

The plot developed with a runaway slave girl, Voluptua (Devi Smart, living up to the name) hiding from the legionnaires, and Ludicrus’s date, Suspenda (Hannah Sayer) arriving, a dominatrix with a capital D, in time to end the first act flat on her back struggling with a half naked Ludicrus, while surrounded with the rest of the family and the slaves.

Mark Skrebels as Captain Treacherus and Paul Russell as Lurcio in Up Pompeii at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City.

Mark Skrebels as Captain Treacherus and Paul Russell as Lurcio in Up Pompeii at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City. - Credit: John Davies

Apart from interruptions from a mad soothsayer Senna (Mary Powell), the slick cast was completed by Mark Skrebels as Treacherus and Tallan Cameron as Kretinus, the legionnaires.

They all contributed to the mayhem of the plot and the farcical misunderstandings which Lurcio desperately tries to undo. 

One solution – he dopes the soldiers, one with a sleeping potion and the other with a love potion, and locks them in a cupboard! Finally Lurcio and Corneous have to avoid more trouble by disguising themselves as girls, but are molested by the legionnaires.

The whole cast combined to keep the fun going, using the characteristics indicated by their names, taking every opportunity to exploit the plotline that they all wanted hanky-panky.  

They looked as if they were enjoying themselves, and we were too.

Paul Russell as Lurcio and Tallan Cameron as Kretinus in Up Pompeii at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City.

Paul Russell as Lurcio and Tallan Cameron as Kretinus in Up Pompeii at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City. - Credit: John Davies

The costumes, which stayed on for most of the time, were excellent.

The set was simple but evocative, and crumbled effectively when the eruption finally brought the curtain down.

Directed by Maureen Davies, this was a well chosen and well performed welcome comic interlude.

The TV humour of 50 years ago stood up well in these capable hands.

With jokey sexual references, no swear words or unacceptable moments were included, but marked out with grins, raised eyebrows or meaningful stares into the audience. 

Times have changed but the comedy of the 70s is still worthy of a place in our affections in a production as good as this.