Being granted access to the Ealing Comedy vaults to bring a classic from the golden age of British cinema to the stage is akin to hitting the jackpot, though it inevitably comes with a heavy payload of expectation.
You can’t say that the producers behind this touring incarnation of The Lavender Hill Mob, Charles Crichton’s 1951 masterpiece, haven’t tried their damnedest to remint the bank-heist caper as a theatrical delight.
Noted director Jeremy Sams heads the creative team. And comic talents Miles Jupp and Justin Edwards, darlings of Radio 4, step into Alec Guinness’s mighty shoes as Holland and those of Stanley Holloway as Pendlebury.
You’ll recall the plot: Holland, the humble-acting Threadneedle Street clerk, who guards gold bullion deliveries, teams up with his souvenir-manufacturing house-mate, Pendlebury, and hastily recruited crims, to nab the gold and recast it as exportable Eiffel Tower paperweights.
Though the set looks a bit half-cocked, the evening offers a default quality of benign charm but, as things stand, it doesn’t really work. The problems flow from the effortfully stagey conceit; Phil Porter’s diligent script draws on the screenplay by TEB Clarke, but reconceives the framing-device. Instead of Holland’s faux-assured dinner-table chat in Rio segueing into the naturalistically portrayed nitty-gritty of his past adventures in London, here everything is re-enacted on the spot by Holland and his dinner guests, as if done as a New Year’s Eve jape, the fugitive’s acquaintances chipping in to act out roles.
In theory, this allows room for zestful innovation. Yet the underlying rationale for the stop-start re-enactment, in front of the visiting Inspector Farrow – who’s assumed to be a film-maker but evidently isn’t – feels too hazy. And because the action is at one remove, the ‘telling’ consciously emphasised, the jeopardy bound up in the tale itself feels diminished.
Yes, it’s fun to see gift-parcels being handled like gold-bars, or silver platters being co-opted as steering-wheels, but the memorable celluloid set-pieces - the madcap car-chases and giddy- and giggle-making descent of the Eiffel Tower, and other gems besides – are too cursorily reconceived.
Hulking and overly hearty as Holland, Jupp has presence but looks uneasy in not wholly in-character ways; he hasn’t found a way of matching Guinness’ sly, smirking demeanour, the rhotacism that added to that performance’s peculiarity has been junked too. Edwards fares OK as the dining ambassador recruited to play Pendlebury, but also seems unsure what he can bring to the table, besides vigour. The rest of the talented cast gamely join in, but to little avail. Comedy gold has been turned into something leaden.
Touring until Feb 18; https://lavenderhillmobplay.co.uk