Eight of us descended on the Chichester Festival Theatre on Saturday night for the last night of Phil Porter’s stage adaptation of the famous Ealing Comedy The Lavender Hill Mob – or at least, the last night of this leg of its UK tour, which started last October and continues for a few more weeks before they all finally get to put their feet up. And it was with a great sense of curiosity that I attended, as I have read some extremely positive comments about the show, and also one comment (from someone whose opinion I respect) saying it was one of the worst shows they’ve ever seen. It must be Marmite!
But first, allow me to offer you a little history lesson, gentle reader – do you remember the original film? It was released in 1951, starred Alec Guinness, Stanley Holloway, and featured a very young Audrey Hepburn; and the British Film Institute ranked it the 17th Greatest British Film of All Time. That’s some reputation! Mrs Chrisparkle and I had never seen it until a few weeks ago when, knowing that we were going to be seeing this new stage version, thought we ought to take a look at the film so that we would be able to make those invidious comparisons between the two that you should never do. And, indeed, it is a charming and very well-made comedy caper which we both enjoyed – although I’d never put it anywhere near the 17th Greatest British Film of All Time. Not considering Genevieve is only listed 86th and Shirley Valentine doesn’t appear at all.
In case you don’t know – and I’m sure you do – Henry Holland is an unambitious London bank clerk, in charge of supervising the Gold Bullion deliveries from the Royal Mint. Enlisting the help of a slightly less-than-honest manufacturer of tourist trash – specifically miniature Eiffel Towers – and a couple of other petty crooks, he hatches a plan to steal the bullion bars and, using his accomplice’s workshop, convert them into Golden Eiffel Towers. But, of course, the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley, and the main emphasis of the film (maybe slightly less of the play) is on the comedy ensuing from their failed attempts to get away with it.
So is it Marmite? Well, yes. Four of us really enjoyed it, the other four (including myself) found it a bit meh. On the plus side, I was very impressed how faithfully it reflected the original film, taking us to Rio whence Holland has fled to escape the Metropolitan Police hunting for the Brains (?) behind the big gold bullion heist. Whereas the film then flashes back to London and shows the main story, the play stays in Rio, where Holland coaxes all the ex-pats at his Club to enact the story of the crime – and they don’t need much coaxing. The film has the marvellous twist that the person to whom Holland is recounting his story throughout the film is in fact the police officer come to arrest him – whereas that twist is missing from the stage production, resulting in rather a lame ending.
That said, there are plenty of laugh out loud moments – my favourite was the delightful “Calais to Dover” scene where our anti-heroes get thwarted at every attempt to follow the bunch of schoolgirls who have unknowingly purchased six genuine Golden Eiffel Towers. There’s a lot of physical comedy, but some of it seems just a trifle half-hearted. Francis O’Connor has constructed an excellent set that frames many of the elements of English country life that you might well miss if you were an ex-pat in Rio, but which adapt very nicely into the story. I loved how the two palm trees at the back of the stage became the Eiffel Tower – very innovative!
And there’s a very charming ensemble feel to the whole staging; one of our party thought the show felt very Am Dram, which is true but is also probably exactly what the creative team intend. These Rio Brits are not actors, they’re retired knights of the realm or ambassadors, or well-to-do Ladies; and they take on the roles of the crooks with a nice blend of their own characterisations and those of the people they are portraying. Quite clever really; but it is that sense of amateurism that basically overshadows the whole production, leaving you feeling a bit dissatisfied.
Is it basically a vehicle for Miles Jupp to present himself as a rather posh, well-educated, upper middle class sort of chappie, without having to do that much acting? Probably. That said, he’s very entertaining as Holland; there are also nice performances from Justin Edwards, Tessa Churchard and John Dougall as locals-cum-Londoners. Tim Sutton brings a fine touch of magic (literally) to the role of Sammy, and Aamira Challenger’s Fernanda lends a hint of what feels like Genuine Rio to the production. I felt rather sorry for Guy Burgess in the unrewarding role of Farrow the police officer, constantly having to be the onlooker and rarely taking part in proceedings.
However, I came away from the show feeling that it was all a little underwhelming, although I’m not sure that they could have done anything better with the material at their disposal. Nevertheless, there was a lot to enjoy and a lot of laughs – if not quite as many as one might have expected. It’s certainly not bad – and it’s certainly not great. The tour continues to Cambridge, Guildford, Glasgow, Bath and Truro.
Production photos by Hugo Glendinning