Count Arthur Strong review – fuzzy logic and cosmic nonsense

<span>Photograph: Jo Hale/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Jo Hale/Getty Images

At least in the colloquial sense, Count Arthur Strong has always been a space cadet – floating as far from reality as ever Illya Kuryakin did from Earth’s sugar-free gum. If that doesn’t make the slightest sense, the Count’s fuzzy logic – abundantly on display in this new show about the cosmos – must be catching. Is There Anybody Out There? is another wonderful set from Steve Delaney as the malaproping “nutty old bloke”, now bidding to supplant Brian Cox (or should that be George Formby?) as the nation’s astronomer-in-chief. One doubts the BBC’s “director-colonel” will take the bait, but there’s no question that this is another stellar performance by the confused Count.

If there is a criticism you could level at Delaney’s shows – beyond the backhanded compliment that they can be as excruciating as they are entertaining – it’s that they work to a familiar formula. The Count will struggle to perform unlikely songs: tonight, he opens with Starman by “David Essex from Mutiny on the … Buses!” There’ll be vaudevillian physical comedy, like the business with the spectacles in his pockets. His crap ventriloquism will feature, as per a chat with Captain Sulky, the first monkey in space, which descends into a sub-Planet of the Apes interspecies bun fight.

But within that frame, Delaney keeps finding funnier settings for the Count’s bewilderment and curmudgeonliness. He performs a one-act play for schoolchildren about Renaissance astronomer Gary Barlow, who invented the telescope, “as well as painting the cistern in the chapel”. Verily, Barry Garlic is “the Stephen Hawkwind of whichever century it is that I’m in”, blithers the Count, before educating the kids about the planets in our solar system with a clothes rail and eight balloons. His trouble with the phrase “just a couple of puffs” brings proceedings to a near halt; his accidental ingestion of helium forces an emergency interval.

Throughout all this nonsense, the real, gruesomely compelling joke is on the Count’s state of mind, and his mortal combat with the Queen’s English. Even with constant stoking, his train of thought derails repeatedly and ends the show a wreck. How did I get here? his eyes scream at us. Where did I start? How did his lecture on Newtonian physics lead to a role-play about a pineapple falling on a bat? However did a list of space-related chocolate bars end up featuring Ursula Andress, the Four Tops and the films of “Dustbin Hoffman”? It would be tragic, if the Count weren’t so cantankerous (blaming everyone but himself for his confusion) and, finally, so indomitable. Yes, the eyes flash with terror, but soon he’s off on another tangent, explaining “the Big Bump”, imagining Lulu’s guest slot on his TV astronomy vehicle, or reminiscing about the forgotten music-hall icon Lenny Long-Arms.

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At every turn, Delaney’s performance gives us something to marvel at, whether it’s the Count’s clenched physicality, would-be cut-glass vowels or the fierce concentration he brings (you can almost hear the synapses cranking into position) as he fathoms where Ed Sheeran stops and Alan Shearer begins.

There are still moments of claustrophobia; it’s part of the Count Arthur experience to feel trapped with him in ever-decreasing circles. But Delaney pays for your discomfort with great wads of laughter, as the Count’s lecture on cosmology falls to Earth with a very big bump of its own.

Touring until 8 March.