The Ukulele Man

The Ukulele Man Adelaide Fringe 20241/2

Adelaide Fringe. Marcel Cole. Star Theatres. 5 Mar 2024


In his heyday, the music and antics of George Formby made him the highest paid entertainer in the UK. He did world tours (including Australia) made movies and performed in countless concert halls and radio shows and was awarded an OBE post his gruelling WW2 entertainment tours for the troops.


There is such a rich history here, and Marcel Cole does well to tell us as much of the story as he does. Born George Booth in Wigan, Lancashire in 1904, his father, under the stage name George Formby, was one of the great music hall performers of the day. Charlie Chaplin even borrowed the costume and cane look for his character of The Tramp.


Young George was dissuaded from the theatre and became a jockey, but after the death of his father (at 45, of tuberculosis), he took on his father’s stage name and followed him onto the boards.


Cole, in the character of George, narrates the rise, fall, and rise of Formby, in the most delicious of Lancashire accents, accompanied by Kate at the piano. There’s no fourth wall here, he invites the audience in, chatting away about his life as a performer, and as a man. It’s riveting stuff; as I said, the history is rich and Cole has done an amazing job with this production.


While Formby initially used his father’s act with the same songs, jokes, and characters, it was his meeting and marrying Beryl Ingham that changed his life and his act. She had him dress formally and introduced the ukulele. While the marriage was very successful for his career, it was not personally satisfying, and George takes us through his relationship with Beryl, with her stage character taken on by accompanist Kate (who also, with quick wig changes, becomes a BBC newsreader and his mother).


Cole is no slouch when it comes to the music. Formby had quite an appetite for innuendo and songs like When I’m Cleaning Windows (initially banned by the BBC) showcases this beautifully. Formby’s play on words is quite remarkable when one considers that he was almost illiterate (which explains some of Beryl). Playing a Goldtone banjolele (a copy of the original Gibson that George played) and a Kala Jazz tenor uke, we were treated to songs such as It Serves You Right, I’m Shy and Standing At The Corner Of The Street, accompanied by Kate at various times on U-bass, violin and piano. There is so much gold to be mined here, but Cole keeps it concise and entertaining from start to finish (including some fine tap-dancing in-between).


This is a polished, professional, and highly enjoyable production. Marcus Cole is a stunner, and when he finishes with the audience singalong Leaning On A Lamp Post and introduces Kate as his mother, well, that’s just icing on the cake. Don’t miss this.


Arna Eyers-White


When: 5 to 9 Mar

Where: Star Theatre Two