The Man in the White Suit review: Stephen Mangan's charm saves Fifties caper from wearing thin

NICK CURTIS
Photograph by Nobby Clark

Stephen Mangan holds this sweet, scrappy show together with comic versatility and sheer personal charm. As Sidney Stratton, a textile chemist in 1950s Lancashire who creates a fabric that will not stain or wear out, he’s a bewildered child-man, pratfalling through life.

Mangan is well paired with Kara Tointon as his employer’s daughter Daphne, a delicious comic creation of exaggerated poise and finishing-school vowels. She even gets a jokey, sinuous dance routine to show off her Strictly-gotten skills.

Director Sean Foley’s production is full of such quirky touches, and is packed with slapstick and delightful visual effects, as well as larky social comment. Designer Michael Taylor conjures a speeding car, a mob chase scene and a fold-down bedroom from his rotating box-of-tricks set. But the script isn’t sharp enough and the staging lacks pace and coherence. Often, it feels like the lead pair are dragging an unwieldy load behind them.

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It’s based on the 1951 Alexander Mackendrick film starring Alec Guinness, set in the world of mill bosses and manual workers, pint pots and washboards. Foley updates it to 1956 to accommodate a few indifferent skiffle numbers by Noah and the Whale’s Charlie Fink, and a greater sense of looming social and technological change.

The film’s critique of capitalism is light-hearted, at least until the boss class – realising Sidney’s invention will bankrupt them and their workforce – try to bribe Daphne to seduce and suppress him. The show is peppered with references to perfidious oil companies, fast fashion, even the prorogation of parliament. These are delivered with such arch, eye-rolling knowingness it’s impossible to mind.

Overall, this looks like an attempt to emulate Richard Bean’s hit, One Man, Two Guvnors – a retro setting, a hapless hero, a show dependent on the likeability of its star. Mangan clowns, capers and quips like a manic virtuoso, with Tointon keeping nimble pace, but ultimately it’s not quite enough to save the enterprise from mediocrity.

Booking to 11 Jan

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