Melissa Blease reviews The Man in The White Suit, starring Stephen Mangan and Kara Tointon, on at Theatre Royal Bath until 21 September
Britain, 1951: Up the workers, down with the toffs. Spam fritters for tea; a pint of bitter for 1s 3d. Front doorsteps were rigorously scrubbed; the lavvy was outside, round the back. And, showing at the Gaumont on the corner of the High Street: The Man in The White Suit, starring Alec Guinness as maverick scientist Sidney Stratton, Joan Greenwood as Sidney’s posh paramour Daphne Birnley and Edie Marton as his landlady, Mrs Watson – and destined to become one Ealing Studios’ biggest box office hits of the year.
Britain, 68 years later: the toffs rule. Spam has pretty much been outlawed by the food police. A third of a pint of craft beer costs around the same as a third of the hourly minimum wage. Scrubbing the front doorsteps is out, lavvies are most definitely in. But the nation’s soft spot for decent entertainment – preferably with a heavy dose of slapstick thrown in – hasn’t changed one jot.
And so, at Theatre Royal Bath right now, Stephen Mangan (Green Wing/I’m Alan Partridge/Bertie Wooster) is Sidney, Kara Tointon (EastEnders/Strictly Come Dancing) is Daphne and Sue Johnson (Brookside/The Royle Family/Downton Abbey – oh, she’s quite simply a legend) is Mrs Watson in a brand new stage adaptation of the Ealing Comedy classic, written and directed by Sean Foley. It’s a world premier for Bath, visiting the city prior to a West End residence – and the odds are that it’s set to be a hot ticket hit of the same magnitude as the original film was, all those years ago.
Throughout the 1950s, Ealing Studios (est. 1902) specialised in themes involving the ‘common man’ who rails against ‘the establishment’ – and TMiTWS is a classic example of the genre. While working at a textile mill, scientist Sidney is working on plans to create an indestructible fabric that never gets dirty. His coworkers and friends support him in his eccentric efforts, thinking that his plans will probably never come to fruition. But when, against all odds, they do… oh Sidney, you really didn’t think the implications of your invention through, did you?
Against Michael Taylor’s impeccably proficient sets that work in perfect harmony with the whole cast’s impeccably proficient timing, Mangan is utterly delicious as Sidney: silly, sweet, and subtly super-smart. Tointon, meanwhile, is perfect as prototype 1950s siren Daphne (and deserves extra credit for showing off her prizewinning Strictly Come Dancing moves to perfection in what has to be one of the funniest of a wall-to-wall bombard of very funny scenes), while Johnston turns what’s ostensibly a supporting role into a series of textbook-perfect cameos to be filed under the category ‘How To Own That Scene.’
Elsewhere, the pop-up live band (Matthew Durkan, Oliver Kaderbhai, Elliott Rennie and Katherine Toy, most of them efficiently multi-tasking in various other roles too) add further slick charm to a slickly charming experience.
Uplifting, daft, whimsical, clever, gently acerbic and, in production terms, simply stunning, The Man in The White Suit is a modern-day Great British Triumph.
Main image: Stephen Mangan as Sidney, Kara Tointon as Daphne and the cast of The Man in the White Suit.
Credit: Nobby Clark