Graham Linehan, from the screenplay by William Rose
Theatre By The Lake, Keswick
24 May 2019 - 30 October 2019, 2hr 5min
Based on the classic 1955 Ealing film comedy, which starred a dream team of British actors of the period, this black farce of bungling burglars and sweet innocence has translated to the stage with some success but not entirely in the spirit of the original, as its adapter intended.
Father Ted creator Graham Linehan’s stage version was first seen in 2012 and has been revived frequently ever since. TBTL’s choice of it for the summer romp (there's more serious stuff also on offer in repertoire over the season to November) is a canny one, clearly appealing across the audience age range from those unfortunate enough to remember the film first time round to those who might think Sellers and Guinness are something to do with subterranean drinking dens.
The evening is a mix of desperate gangsters, thundering trains, a charming old lady and a vociferous parrot. We’re in Mrs Wilberforce’s (Rachel Laurence) somewhat askew little London house at the side of a busy railway line, shared with General Gordon, her beloved parrot, and an over-active imagination that keeps the local police busy dealing with her fantasies.
She takes in a lodger, Professor Marcus (Dominic Gately), who claims to be a professional musician and wants to have his string quintet practice in his room. Sounds unlikely? Of course: rehearsals are cover for the planning of an armed robbery and disposal of the loot.
There’s much comeuppance in the second half, as each member of the gang meets an appropriately sticky end. But Linehan has deliberately made his stage version less dark than the film, to give theatregoers a funnier and less disturbing night out. Director Chris Honer (not so long ago esteemed AD of the much-lamented Manchester Library Theatre) goes along with this quite happily.
I found though that not everything gels as succinctly as it might. Linehan has lumbered cast and director with too many lines and bits of business that just won’t have life breathed into them, no matter how hard they try. Consequently there are too many awkward gaps in the laughs. I also recall that first time around, in a large theatre production, the robbery was achieved with elaborate model cars that formed one of the show’s highlights. There’s none of that here and the substitute sound-only escapade didn’t work for me because I hadn’t a clue what was supposed to be going on.
Honer has an appealing ensemble to deliver the goods though, with Eric Potts typically a stand-out for his One-Round character, so named for his lack of prowess as a boxer, now getting the laughs as the dimwit of the group.
Designer Louie Whitemore provides a split-level set of wonky parlour with bedroom above, and Chris Davey and Richard Bell have fun with lights and sound every time a train thunders past.
I wanted to enjoy the show even more than I did, but I loved the overall experience of the theatre, its setting, a beautiful summer evening and the festival feel that TBTL inevitably bestows on its productions.
Also in repertoire this season in the main house are Jim Cartwright’s Little Voice and Dear Uncle, Alan Ayckbourn’s adaptation of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya. In the Studio there is Charlotte Keatley’s My Mother Said I Never Should, new play The Children by Lucy Kirkwood, and The Guards At The Taj, by Rajiv Joseph.
Plenty of variety to choose from in one of the UK’s most appealing theatres.