Theatre Royal Bath until 11 February Words by Melissa Blease
You don’t need to be a classic British film buff to know that the very words Ealing Studios – the oldest film and TV production company in the world, est.1902 – are instantly synonymous with all manner of classic British films, most famously their globally renowned late 1940/early 50s-era crime caper comedies including The Ladykillers, Kind Hearts and Coronets and (our case in point here, of course) The Lavender Hill Mob.
As the highly-regarded film critic, movie historian and journalist Roger Ebert so succinctly put it, “there emerged from the Ealing Studios of England a series of crime caper comedies so dry and droll, so literate and cynical, that the phrase ‘Ealing Production’ described them and no others.” Hm; that’s quite the legacy to live up to – especially if you’re attempting to do that legacy justice live on stage.
While writer Phil Porter’s adaptation of T E B Clarke’s original screenplay (directed by Jeremy Sams and starring national treasure Miles Jupp) pays due homage to the tale of mild-mannered clerk-turned-heistmaster Henry Holland, certain elements have definitely been lost in translation: the backdrop (a Rio de Janeiro nightclub) leaves us yearning for a recreation of the day-to-day domestic/working life in 1950s London and Paris that gave the film so much atmosphere, while the rather convoluted plot device of having a group of friends reenact the whole drama in flashback for a mysterious stranger, acted out by an ensemble cast playing multiple roles, pretty much eliminates that all-important element of suspense so crucial to a crime drama, regardless of how caper-laden it may be.
Jupp is a solid, affable (albeit a tad one-dimensional) Holland, Justin (The Thick of It; Skins; Black Mirror) Edwards is similarly solid and affable as Holland’s unlikely partner in crime Pendlebury… and everybody else – as Audrey/Victoria Blunt comments, at one point – “plays their part” (solidly, affably, etc).
Oh, it’s a polished production, for sure, and exceptionally easy on the eye: direction and choreography are slick, tight and well-considered, props are imaginative, and energy levels never drop. But that droll, literate cynicism that Ebert defined as being so intrinsic to an Ealing crime caper comedy only really peaks at bronze standard, never quite reaching the gold that Henry Holland set his sights on.