Brighton Year-Round 2022
Directed by Jeremy Sams, Set & Costume Designer Francis O’Connor, Lighting Design Mark Henderson, Sound Designer Fergus O’Hare, Associate Director Louise Shephard, Associate Designer Alex Doidge Green, Casting Director Ginny Schiller CDG, Illusions and Music Tim Sutton, Movement Director Alyssa Noble, Fight Director Bethan Clark, Costume Supervisor Jackie Holt.
Till November 26th and on tour
So we’ve had comedies about plays going wrong and bank robberies, not to mention those ever-dancing thirty-nine steps. So adapting another Ealing caper film seems just the flea-pit ticket. Especially when the adaptor of T. E. B. Clarke’s 1951 Ealing masterpiece The Lavender Hill Mob is Phil Porter, and it’s directed by Jeremy Sams. Arriving at Theatre Royal Brighton a cast of eight’s headed by Miles Jupp and Justin Edwards.
Porter’s own plays take an oddball and tease it straight (Blink) or various adaptations like the recent, excellent The Boy With Two Hearts where comedic multi-roling we’re spoilt with in The Thirty-Nine Steps is deployed wittily and touchingly. Here, that takes a little while to get airborne, though in the second half we’re in territory Clarke might have enjoyed.
We start in Rio de Janeiro, and a man now the life and soul of the Ambassador’s guest-list and his guests asks to re-enact for bored Mr Farrow (Guy Burgess) the whole story of his escapade one last time, aided by the guests who know it by heart. And they’re not bored. No, despite a plane due to take off at 1am on January 1st 1950 (this is a New Year’s Eve party, Mr Farrow!) they all demand to tell their favourite tale. It’s a promisingly theatrical swerve on the original screenplay.
Jupp’s Henry Holland was a loyal, thus overlooked OCD overseer of the Bank of England’s gold bullion, transported to be melted into ingots. He reads hard-boiled crime stories to his landlady, and his hobby’s knowing every street in London. (Sounds familiar. A cabby born into the wrong class system? Alas, this is 1951).
Something snaps when his new neighbour frustrated artist Pendlebury (Edwards, also Ambassador playing Pendlebury) relates how he’s settled for turning out miniature lead Eiffel Towers to sell to the French souvenir shops around that icon; gold-painted of course. Other guests snatch all the best parts, so hapless Ambassador is rather amazed when he finds himself plum sidekick.
The oddball brilliance of the original is what you might want to go back to after this. A classic film, it seems here in the ultimately witty and funny set (and costumes) by Francis O’Connor – rather stranded in Rio for its 45-minute first half. Two gold window-frames and a foreground of nightclub tables with a few props dominate the set, plus an old-style giant projection of stills which can tell the backdrop story (Bank of England, Lavender Hill, and so on).
It’s a bit ground-borne till the second half, when with a beautifully mated set of Eiffel Towers halves and a lot of clambering the comedy really comes alive. Mark Henderson’s lighting rather smoulders in the nightclub bonhomie of the Ambassadorial residence, though brightens considerably in the second half. A sense of London though is elided – perhaps we’re always meant to remember where we are.
So no spoilers here if you don’t know it. Suffice to add Lady Agnes (Tessa Churchard) and Audrey (Victoria Blunt) grace as expert criminals inveigled charmingly into the heist and transport, though don’t want to risk crossing into France, where the duo end up: with an Eiffel Tower or six that goes wrong. For mistakenly, despite labelling, six of the melted-down bits of gold are sold to English schoolgirls who the pair chase back to Blighty and where one in particular ends up in very interesting hands.
That’s to anticipate. Churchard and Blunt multi-role blissfully as Cockney robbers and snail-snorting Frenchmen, cab drivers and schoolgirls. They’re aided by smouldering Fernanda (Aamira Challenger) as chief schoolgirl and conjurer Sammy (Tim Sutton, also production illusionist and music composer) as well as game Sir Horace (John Dougall) taking all the official roles with sartorial zip.
Taking on the Alec Guinness mantle, Jupp nicely conveys the bonhomie of a man who regards himself as almost beneath notice till his one great idea, and still baffled by the esteem he’s held in, yet white-suited like a Graham Greene comic hero (or Alec Guinness in The Man in the White Suit): urbane and more the ambassador than the ambassador. Edwards, in that role (originally Stanley Holloway’s), bumbles neatly as a Watson-esque Pendlebury in a pea-green jacket. And Burgess’ shadowy Farrow? You might guess.
It’s certainly enjoyable and the second act shows what it might be. There’s not a moment’s longeurs either. Porter relishes moments of manic multi-roling when they come – particularly in a profusion of French ‘merde’ jokes. Having set up a clever re-enactment by one set of characters for another, perhaps it’s just a bit too pacey to allow the full subversion of British types, loyal to Holland, to land: though there’s plenty of anchorings-back to Rio and a neat cliff-hanger ending Act One.
As a play, it can fall between a slightly richer exploration of character – 45 minutes each side is certainly a pacey spin of Porter’s mingled yarn – and the madcap of full farce in The Thirty-Nine Steps mould. Indeed several cast-members here have acted in that or the Mischief franchise. Ealing comedies usually managed both; some of that charm’s evaporated as the silver screen turns technicolour black-and-white.