By Arthur Rochester
I have to admit to approaching this production with some slight apprehension, based on my previous experience of popular screen originals re-created for the very different medium of live theatre. Two such which I adjudicated in recent Kent Drama Association festivals, for example, ‘Allo ‘Allo and Dad’s Army, both seemed to me to have suffered in the transition – although, incredibly, a stage version of the 1946 David Niven classic A Matter Of Life And Death worked extraordinarily well in the confines of the Woodchurch Village Hall! Whatever fears I may have entertained, however, were quickly proved groundless.
Sitcom writer Graham Linehan’s adaptation of the well-known and much-loved 1955 Ealing comedy follows the outline of the original film script but turns the piece from a macabre, edgy comedy into a hilarious and eminently stage-worthy farce.
For any not familiar with the film, the intentionally ambiguous title refers to a group of bungling criminals who, planning to rob a train at Kings Cross station, take up residence in the nearby home of the sweet, innocent and elderly Mrs Wilberforce. As a cover for their nefarious plan, they pose as rehearsing musicians, with hilarious consequences. Inevitably, Mrs Wilberforce becomes aware of their deception, but when they plan consequently to dispatch her she reveals a steely moral determination, with fatal results instead for the hapless villains.
Tony Jenner’s imaginative set, once again as much a feat of engineering as of design, with an upper-level bedroom and rock-solid, much-used staircase, successfully displayed the seediness of that area of post-war London. If the simulation of the street door required some suspension of belief from the audience, that is a problem at BLT to which I see no more satisfactory solution. The lighting was at an appropriately gloomy but acceptable level, but I must confess that it took me a little while to realise that the frequent loud bursts of background noise were actually intended to emanate from trains on the nearby railway.
As Mrs Wilberforce, Jan Greenhough again confirmed the remarkable versatility which has characterised her recent BLT appearances. Exuding a lavender scent almost detectable in the auditorium, she expertly captured the initial innocence and sweetness of the character, before revealing the iron resolve which brought about the crooks’ demise.
Each member of the ‘gang’ delivered a nicely contrasted characterisation: Steve Williams was very funny as the bogus major with a penchant for dressing in female attire; Giles Tebbitts, likeable as the punch-drunk but good-natured former pugilist One-Round; Paul Johnson, the cheerful embodiment of the archetypal fifties spiv Harry, and Howie Ripley, totally convincing as the psychotic Rumanian, Louis with hilariously mangled English.
This disparate crew was led by the clearly deranged ‘Professor’ Marcus, who struggled ineffectively to deal with Mrs Wilberforce. Stephen Gray certainly extracted all the humour from the role but, although it is churlish to compare him with the incomparable Alec Guiness (who had the benefit of the ‘close-up’), I would have liked to see a little more of the menace underlying the character’s imbecility.
The excellent cast was completed by Mark Dempsey as a well-remembered 1950s ‘bobby’ and by Penny Cullen as Mrs Tromleyton, leading a gaggle of Mrs Wilberforce’s tea-guests (not identified in the programme). All beautifully costumed for their brief appearance, they made a significant contribution to the action – the scene in which they were regaled by a ‘concert’ of total cacophony passed off as avant-garde music was one of the evening’s many humorous highspots.
The entire cast achieved a high level of ensemble performance, which clearly owed much to Mike Savill’s inventive and polished direction. Pacing and shaping of the far-from-easy genre of farce was well-judged and its many physical aspects, including a good measure of outright slapstick, confidently controlled. Perhaps most strikingly, each character was invested with endearing qualities which enabled the audience to care about them and even, I believe, to feel some sympathy for them in their final demise. On the night I attended, the audience reaction was deservedly prolonged and effusive – proof, if needed, that considerable stagecraft and theatrical skill, unobtrusively employed, had resulted in a huge measure of enjoyment and entertainment.