The Good Life
Cambridge Arts Theatre | UK Tour
Reviewed – 9th November 2021
“the sit-com format over two hours disappoints”
For anyone not in the know, The Good Life (by John Esmonde and Bob Larbey) was one of BBC TV’s most successful situation comedy programmes airing between 1975 and 1978 which elevated its four main actors to near national treasure status. How then are we to judge this new stage version (adapted and directed by Jeremy Sams), taking the characters as they are without censuring them for not being the faces and voices that we so loved? Well, needs must.
The curtain rises on the morning of Tom Good’s (Rufus Hound) fortieth birthday and his feeling that life is not all it could be. By the end of the day he has quit his job designing cereal box plastic toys and embarked on a mission with wife Barbara (Sally Tatum) to become self-sufficient, turning their suburban house and garden into a freeholding along with chickens, pigs and a marauding goat called Stephanie (a deliberately humorous animatronic puppet). Next door live their friends, haughty and houseproud Margo (Preeya Kalidas) and Tom’s now ex-boss Jerry Leadbetter (Dominic Rowan).
Sams explains in his programme note of the contemporary resonances there are to be heard in this story but the overwhelming feeling is of a period piece. The characters are not much developed beyond what we know already, the biggest laughs come from references to chicken Kiev and black forest gateau, and despite some additional storyline from Sams – including one scene involving the smoking of pot which is unlikely to have made it onto 1970s TV – the key episodes follow events from the TV series.
An ingenious set design (Michael Taylor) incorporates two revolving flats that rotate to reveal either the Good’s kitchen or the Leadbetter’s living room. 1970s furniture – sideboard, hostess trolley, electronic organ, serving hatch – provide the period feel. (A banner in the final scene places us specifically in 1977).
Four loosely-linked scenes ensue of the ups-and-downs of the Good’s new life, and how it affects their relationship with the Leadbetters but the sit-com format over two hours disappoints. When the main joke of one scene is that ‘the Pigman has nobbled the cake’ and the drama reaches its climax with an inebriated tango and a conga around the living room, it all feels just a little lame. An attempt for greater poignancy with a story involving Barbara’s attempts to save the life of a new-born piglet is too long and clumsily staged.
The energy of the ensemble cannot be faulted. There is some excellent quickfire repartee between Tom and Barbara, and Rufus Hound seems most comfortable in his role, but what is missing is any sparkle between the couple. We should see their shared enjoyment when they tease Margo – who does not understand why something is amusing – and the occasional innuendo should seem naughty but falls flat. Next door, Preeya Kalidas does her snooty best as Margo but we only see one side of her character and her propriety always slows the pace. Dominic Rowan does a fine job as Jerry placating his wife and toadying to his boss. Surprisingly, the star turn of the evening comes from Nigel Betts whose four cameo roles with different costumes, hair, and accents are much enjoyed.
There are laughs aplenty to be had in this amiable entertainment which evokes memories of comfy afternoons in front of the telly, a glass of Liebfraumilch in the hand, but, as Tom says right at the start, “is that it?”
Reviewed by Phillip Money
Photography by Dan Tsantilis
The Good Life
Cambridge Arts Theatre until 13th November then UK Tour continues
Previously reviewed at this venue:
Rose Theatre Kingston
Reviewed – 26th September 2019
“a very human story that pulls off the almost impossible feat of making you feel nostalgic for Thatcher’s Britain”
It is 1984 in London, and while Thatcher and Scargill are at loggerheads over the miner’s strike elsewhere, the city is setting the scene for its own battles in a time of cultural upheaval. There was a revolutionary spirit, partly fuelled by the property boom, that eventually found itself in the hands of the satirists. While Gordon Gekko’s “Greed is Good” speech echoed from Wall Street, our home grown “Loadsamoney” became a national catchphrase. But among the cacophony, a quieter voice, in the shape of the late writer Stephen Jeffreys, captured the mood with far more humanity and subtlety. “Valued Friends” was the play that launched Jeffreys’ career and won him the Evening Standard and Critics’ Circle Award for most Promising Playwright.
In its first major revival in thirty years, the comedy and pathos still resonate in today’s turbulent economic and political climate. Yet the beauty of Jeffreys’ writing lies in his refusal to allow the social issues to take centre stage. They are merely the backdrop to the razor-sharp depiction of the characters, which makes his writing both era specific and timeless.
In a basement flat in Earls Court, four friends in their mid-thirties are scrabbling to keep their heads above water. They are thrown unexpectedly into a battle of nerves when a young, confident property developer offers them a substantial fee to vacate their home. Spurred on by the revolutions of their time, they quickly realise that they hold all the cards in this real-life game of Monopoly and, over the course of three years, they manipulate the burgeoning property market. But much more is at stake than a few quid, and that is what the audience cares about.
“How much do you care?” asks quirky, stand-up comic Sherry in the opening line. It is the beginning of a hilarious monologue about her journey home on the Underground, one of many delivered by Natalie Casey in a spellbinding performance that is a master class in comic timing. Meanwhile Michael Marcus’ Howard, an academic writing about the corruption of capitalism, is succumbing to the attraction of the pound signs waved in front of him. Marion and Paul make up the close-knit foursome destined to be torn apart. “You used to get some really good conversation in this flat. Burning issues and moral dilemmas and things. Now all everyone talks about is money”. Sam Frenchum, as Paul, brilliantly sheds his comic mantle as the keen music journalist to become the earnest home improvement enthusiast, while Catrin Stewart’s straight-talking, pragmatic Marion manages to pull our heartstrings as she discovers that the more she gains, the more she has to lose – on a purely personal level. Ralph Davis’ meticulously pitched estate agent, Scott, is a brilliant work of satire. Far from being a Mephistophelian figure he merely dangles the carrot. But show stealer is Nicholas Tennant as Stewart, who only appears in the second act as the hilarious, surreally philosophical builder.
Michael Fentiman’s sharp direction brings out the best of the actors on Michael Taylor’s simple yet ingenious set, that transforms in time-lapse motion from a scruffy basement flat to a swish, desirable property. This is a very human story that pulls off the almost impossible feat of making you feel nostalgic for Thatcher’s Britain. Richard Hammarton’s eighties soundtrack highlights the best of the decade, just as these characters shed a warm light on the heart of the matter. It’s a skilfully written and performed piece of modern satire: you shouldn’t like these people but, in answer to the opening question of the play, you care an awful lot.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Pamela Raith
Rose Theatre Kingston until 12th October
Previously reviewed at this venue: