The weather map is hanging there, dominating the back of the stage. If you grew up at the right time, one glance will trigger a sunny glow of nostalgia: a memory of the days when jumpers were in fashion, temperatures were in Fahrenheit, and presenters reminded you to turn off your TV set before you went to bed. One man bestrides the stage in front of the map, poking its symbols, caressing its curves. This man is an icon. This man is Michael Phish.
Phish is, of course, heavily based on the real-world BBC weather forecaster Michael Fish – the man who famously announced that there wouldn’t be a hurricane, just before the Great Storm of 1987 battered the UK. Hurricane Michael starts with that notorious moment, but quickly diverges onto an entertainingly overblown conspiracy theory – which sees Phish transformed by a forecasting accident into a Svengali-like figure, suddenly finding he can predict far more than just the weather.
Actor Russell Layton doesn’t exactly impersonate Fish, but there’s an essential likeness there: the unruly hair, the prominent spectacles, the curious taste in clothes. When we smile at the mismatched jacket and trousers, we’re laughing at the follies of our own younger days – and if the truth be known, you probably do have to be a certain age to fully appreciate Layton’s jam-packed script. References to 80s icons ranging from Ian McCaskill to When The Wind Blows are scattered liberally throughout, and the laugh count’s kept high with a veritable Gulf Stream of mangled metaphors and other subtly unexpected turns of phrase.
Layton’s other-worldly Phish is the perfect mouthpiece for this style of deadpan humour – and just in case it isn’t all wacky enough, he drops out of character occasionally for actorly asides. At one point, he even gets an audience member up onto the stage, for a scene exploring Phish’s incongruous alter ego as a latter-day Romeo. It could have been toe-curling, but Layton lets his real self through just enough to highlight the ridiculousness of what’s going on, making his imaginary meal with an imaginary Wincey Willis a beautifully-judged highlight.
The plot itself is engaging enough, though it gets a little tied up in 1980s red-scare politics and perhaps could make a stronger play of the sinister forces whirling around Phish. In some ways, though, that isn’t the point; this is unashamedly a character play, delighting in creating an imaginary backstory for a much-loved national treasure. And just in case you’re wondering about the propriety of this, the real Michael Fish – as though he weren’t already dude enough – has not only said he’s honoured by the play, but has even posed with Layton in front of the weather map.
It’s my duty to warn you that not everyone in the audience around me seemed to find it as funny as I did; this is definitely one for those who enjoy a constant breeze of intelligent wordplay, rather than a storm of knock-you-off-your-feet hilarity. But I chuckled pretty much continually throughout the hour, so I forecast a bright future for Hurricane Michael. Offering a haze of nostalgia with gusts of laugh aloud humour, it’s a shaft of sunlight in our all-too-dreary world.