Adapted by Graham Linehan from the screenplay by William Rose
Directed by Sean Foley
Gielgud Theatre, London
3rd December 2011 matinee
Marcia Warren – Mrs Wilberforce
Peter Capaldi – Professor Marcus
Jamers Fleet – Major Courteney
Stephen Wight – Harry
Clive Rowe- One Round
Ben Miller – Louis
Harry Peacock – Policeman
The stage play is based on the 1955 Ealing Comedy (Alec Guinness, Herbert Lom, Peter Sellers). The Coen Brothers remade the story in 2004, starring Tom Hanks and Irma Hall, relocating it in Southern USA. Unusually for a Coen brothers movie, it failed to engage me, but perhaps the Ealing classic is too well-known for British audiences.
The stage play was newly adapted by Graham Linehan, scriptwriter of two of my favourite TV comedies, Father Ted and The IT Crowd. Deep breath here. This will run as a farce, and there are far too few of these, round the theatre circuit for years. It’s funny. It’s a great story. Audiences will be delighted wherever it goes … we thoroughly enjoyed it … but …
It didn’t quite make it for either of us. It’s a three stars out of five play. There are a few five star laugh out loud flashes … notably the discovery of the whole gang crammed into a cupboard. We agreed on the rating, but spent the two hour drive home working out why we thought it was fun, why no one will ever complain about buying their ticket, but it’s not especially memorable, nor is it excellent in spite of excellent performances.
First off is the set. It’ll probably win an award. It looks wonderful, star of the show superficially: lopsided, angled, bizarre. It revolves to reveal three different exteriors. It has lots of mechanical business built in. But it screws the play because it ignores first principles. We thought it a very good-looking but very poor set. What are first principles:? Work out where things are going, to happen, place them upfront for the audience. Trouble is, they place the bedroom which the musicians rent, in about 25% of the set area, right to one side, four foot at least above stage level. I still have neck ache. This is where all the fun happens. The fight scenes and business are severely cramped as a result. The obvious solution goes to the 2004 American film … put the musicians, who we want to watch, in the basement which you make base stage level, utilising the full width of the stage for the action. Put old Mrs Witherspoon and the ground level up above them, as she’s often just sitting quietly or making tea. You don’t lose the window for throwing bodies onto the Newcastle train, because the train’s in a cutting whatever.
Where the action is … on 25% of the stage
L-R: Mrs Witherspoon, Prof Marcus, the Major, One Round, Harry, Louis
The set had lots of built-in mechanical business with chairs and table moving when a train passed, setting that they’re right by the railway line. It was very funny when the first train passed, then it never happened again. Expensive, but probably not worth it. The actual robbery played out by toy model electric cars on a vertical surface was another waste of time. It looked naff. It was naff. That can be funny. Here, we thought, it wasn’t. You can cover the robbery with 20 seconds of sound effects in darkness. Money thrown away. We’re really coming down hard on this great-looking set.
They make a major thing about the 1956 setting. But before the play and in the interval, the speakers treat us to Tiptoe Through The Tulips and Look For The Silver Lining in strangulated 1930s versions. Mrs Witherspoon puts on the lavender dress to remind herself of her own 21st birthday, at least fifty years earlier. But all her friends arrive for the recital in Edwardian frockst too. So why bother to have a prominent 1956 Daily Mirror printed up? What was Linehan thinking? It’s all “old”? Stephen Wight had a touch of velvet on his collar as Harry, but 1956 should be full Teddy Boy for the character. We assumed Ben Miller was doing a very poor Italian accent until two-thirds through we discover he’s a 1956 Rumanian crook, in a 1930s Al Capone suit. Rumanians didn’t get to England in 1956. And a Rumanian accent doesn’t sound anything remotely like that either. We have Rumanian friends. We’ve taught Rumanians.
Peter Capaldi as Professor Marcus.
Accent spoiled Peter Capaldi’s Professor Marcus for us too, in spite of a tremendous performance in the leading part. They had decided he was Welsh (Linehan knows so many great Irish comedians, that this was a weird decision). Welsh is stereotypical for a manipulative character of this sort, but the accent drifted strongly in and out, and even when it was “in” failed to convince me (my mother was Welsh, but I don’t have a problem with taking the piss out of a Welsh accent, which many Welsh comedians do, as long as it sounds real).
The performances were great SITCOM performances. James Fleet was a hilarious Major, reproducing his Vicar of Dibley role closely right down to the stammer. Stephen Wight as Harry the pill-popping hyper young crook was superb and got brilliant physical action. My favourite of all was Clive Rowe as the punch-drunk, brain-damaged boxer, One-Round. Marcia Warren shone throughout as a perfect Mrs Wilberforce.
But in spite of all that, we both felt it “didn’t quite work.” The set was the main fault, but I’ll have a bash at acting and direction too. When you do farce, you have to be in the role, AND be yourself, the actor. Take the business when Harry is killed and lying on the bed, and is substituted for a frame dummy under a blanket which then gets cast out of the window onto the Newcastle train. Superb theatre, seamlessly executed. But in 50s / 60s farce, Brian Rix would have done a facial expression to the audience to acknowledge the laughter and the applause at carrying it all off. That little touch of improv, standing for a millisecond outside the role, was almost completely missing. James Fleet did it once, in character, when something rolled off the stage and he had to get it back. Otherwise, I thought it was all exactly as scripted. As Linehan says, you rehearse sitcom all week then perform it live in front of an invited audience (though not without stops to retake if something goes wrong, I’ll add to his programme note). Maybe Fleet’s bit was scripted, though I thought not. This was sitcom on stage. It needed something of Filter (see A Midsummer Night’s Dream review) interaction with the audience. Not to the same degree, but just the touch that Brian Rix’s company used to put into Whitehall farce. The timing is “filming the sitcom timing” not “working on stage to a different live audience every night timing.” It shows. This was early in the play’s run, and it’s the sort of thing the cast may ‘relax into’ as it progresses.
In the end, I suspect this will eventually get to wherever you are and be a huge success. But it’s not quite right. I’m going to look out for the next version of this script. In 4 or 5 years time, a provincial company will put on a new version with a far cheaper set, and less respect for the printed page, and as a result, do it better.