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
Taking a novel that’s been much loved for more than a century and turning it into a stage musical isn’t ever going to be an easy task. Stray too much from the original (Kenneth Grahame’s ‘The Wind in the Willows’) or tamper too much with the characters and you risk alienating generations of fans. Make it too safe and you end up leaving theatre goers disappointed.
Thankfully, this is a production that should delight everyone whether they’ve read the novel or not. With Julian Fellowes (book) paired with multi award winning Stiles & Drewe (music and lyrics), this was almost guaranteed to be a hit. Wind in the Willows is the third Fellowes penned musical now in the West End, alongside Half a Sixpence (also featuring the work of Stiles & Drewe) and School of Rock. This man is frustrating talented!
The staging at first looks quite simple. An opening set that seems to be just a series of concentric semi-circles; yet these make you focus immediately centre stage and there’s clearly a point to this. The sets throughout are designed almost symmetrically around the centre of the stage, key elements of the show (you’ll get to see everything from a horse drawn caravan to a canal barge) are strategically placed so your eye doesn’t wander. So although simple at first glance, Peter McKintosh has created one of the neatest set designs I’ve seen in a long time.
McKintosh is also responsible for costume and with it the specific challenges of the anthropomorphism of the characters. Again this has been achieved in quite a pleasantly simple, yet delightful way. There are thankfully few complete ‘animal costumes’ on show; the foxes garbed bizarrely as fox hunters are the nearest you get to this. The rest of the show’s fauna is mostly created through a range of subtle touches such as colouring or a tail or ears. An exception to this is the elaborate Gaultier-like spines of the scout uniform attired hedgehog family.
The plot adheres mostly to Grahame’s original with a little bit of artistic license thrown in (an online spat recently took place about Mr Otter and Portly now becoming Mrs Otter and Portia). It’s very easy to follow what’s going on so can easily be enjoyed by all the family. The action ranges from gentle meandering in boats to in-auditorium surprises.
Casting is near perfect; Rufus Hound as the pompous and impulsive Toad is outstanding throughout, Gary Wilmot as the slightly curmudgeonly Badger brings a dignified air to the show and Neil McDermott’s spiv like Chief Weasel (with curiously long tongue) was just a delight to watch (Weazelz rule!). The only character who didn’t really excite was Denise Welch’s Otter that just felt a little flat.
Stand out performance of the show goes to the double act of Mole (Craig Mather) and Ratty (Simon Lipkin). The pair worked perfectly together and deservedly got one of the biggest rounds of applause. Craig Mather, already having starred in Les Miserables is surely set to become one of our best musical theatre actors.
The songs are all enjoyable enough as you’d expect from Stiles & Drewe. The Wassailing Mice sung by the field mice on Mole’s house is charming and The Hedgehog’s Nightmare is a nice little comedy number; the other songs range from the gentle heart warming numbers such as A Friend is Still a Friend to the rousing likes of We’re Taking Over the Hall.
Further mentions must go to director Rachel Kavanaugh whose direction is top class and of course to the talented orchestra led by Toby Higgins. Finally, the other members of the cast for being weasally distinguished weasels, stotally different stoats alongside a myriad of other creatures.
Great songs, some sharp one liners, a few surprises here and there (generally from Mr Toad) and a plot that is easily followed by all (take note Bat Out of Hell) will make The Wind in the Willows appeal to all ages.