A few months ago I saw that this show was coming to Wyndham’s and I thought it might make a decent matinee treat for the Squire of Sidcup and me, as he’s a big fan of Stephen Mangan and I just like seeing plays. Then came the news that the show was closing early due to poor sales – and I realised that our timing was lucky, and that we just managed to squish ourselves in to see it, before it closes on Saturday.
The Man in the White Suit is based on the film of the same name, a 1951 Ealing Comedy starring Alec Guinness. According to Wikipedia, so it must be true, the British Film Institute named it the 58th greatest British film of all time. Naturally, I haven’t seen it. But I can absolutely imagine how this comic scifi tale, about an inventor who creates a fabric that neither stains nor wears out, could really have brought a sense of ludicrous hilarity to the post-war gloom. Of course, the final twist is that the fabric does deteriorate after all, and pretty rapidly too. This whole construct was not new; I remember seeing Leonard Rossiter in Feydeau’s The Purging, as part of The Frontiers of Farce at the Old Vic in 1976, where he played the manufacturer of unbreakable chamber pots. They broke – to hilarious consequences.
The Man in the White Suit film appealed to the working-class/trade union themes of 1950s comedy, the I’m All Right Jack generation that poked fun at both the Trotskyite union leaders and the toff company owners alike. Today, we have a different range of political strife to contend with; but there’s still a great divide between the haves and the have nots. There’ll always be a difference between the Brendas of this world, all hard-working labour and protecting workers’ rights, and the Birnleys, who pompously proclaim their exploitative achievements by dint of inheritance. And in the middle, there’s the little man whose talent pulls him out of the great working masses but never brings him to the height of management; exposing him in limbo with nowhere to go. Whilst I can see the relevance of TMITWS’s story to today, its attempts to accentuate the modern relevance feel rather clunky. Some of those knowing but oblique modern references might have been better left out, and let this tale stand simply as the period piece it is.
Nevertheless, there’s a lot of fun to be had, and the cast take on their task with brightness and enthusiasm, concentrating on the horseplay and plentiful slapstick moments. Director Sean Foley, who has a knack of creating amazingly successful work and amazingly disastrous work with equal measure, once more brings his eye for physical comedy, humorous effects and general lovability to his own adaptation of the original script. Michael Taylor’s set is incredibly versatile, not only cunningly creating a pub or restaurant scene together with the research laboratories, factory and the Birnleys’ stately residence, it also reveals pop out extra spaces, folding out of walls; for example, the superb 1950s sports car scene, and Daphne’s bedroom are surprising and delightful as they unfold.
Central to all this ludicrous mayhem is Stephen Mangan, who cuts a lovably foolish figure as Sidney Stratton, the inventor who nearly always mucks things up. Whether it’s his explosive laboratory experiments, or spilling drinks down his (or anyone else’s) lap, he always stands up for decency in the face of exploitation, and also wants the quality of everyone’s lives to be improved by scientific development and progress. He’s hard-working on stage, bumbling from one physical disaster to another, striving to talk his way out of a series of mess-ups; and it’s a very funny performance.
Kara Tointon plays Daphne Birnley with the plummiest of accents, most vividly reminding me of the cut glass tones of the young Mrs Thatcher, deliberately pinpointing both the posh and the patronising. Daphne’s a young woman who knows her own mind, and whilst Ms Tointon is feeding us a stereotype, she’s quite believable all the same. There’s also a fabulously funny performance from Richard Cordery as Birnley, all northern pomp and circumstance, blundering his way through the proceedings; the archetypal fat cat with an interest only in himself (and protecting the virtue of his daughter).
I’d been looking forward to seeing Sue Johnston on stage, as I’m a great admirer of her ability to perform understated comedy (The Royle Family) and intelligent drama (Waking the Dead), but her role as Stratton’s drudge landlady Mrs Watson is very uninspiring and she had precious little decent material to get her teeth into. Similarly, Richard Durden’s Sir John is a pantomime villain who steps in to ensure the mill-owners scoop off the highest amount of cash from any deal. I did enjoy the musical spots from Matthew Durkan as Jimmy Rigton, together with his band as played by Oliver Kaderbhai, Elliott Rennie and Katherine Toy, creating a suitable musical accompaniment to the plot. This doesn’t quite make it a musical as such, but just lends some period character, much as the skiffle group do in One Man Two Guvnors.
It’s a fun show; but it is enormously silly. At the interval, I couldn’t decide whether it was awfully brilliant, or brilliantly awful – somewhere between the two, I guess, lies the truth. I doubt whether this production will see the light of day again, but don’t go away with the feeling that it’s an out and out failure – far from it. Above all, the feeling that you take away is that you’re watching a live action cartoon, featuring broad brush characters with stereotypical characteristics working hard for your laughter. There’s no slipping on a banana skin sequence but if there had been, it would have been wholly in keeping with everything else. I’m glad I saw it.
P. S. A theatrical first for me, in that after curtain down the audience was required to participate in a planned evacuation practice. Relatively easy for us, as we were near the end of a row right by some doors leading out into the safety of the open air. Interesting to hear all the emergency alarms though, and to see the ushers and bar staff all manning the doors and directing people to safety. Good that they do it – I’m just surprised that this is the first time in over fifty years of theatregoing that I’ve experienced such a thing!
Production photos by Nobby Clark