Only Fools and Horses: The Musical, Theatre Royal, review: Entertaining adaptation aimed firmly at the fans

There’s certainly no mistaking this score for one of Stephen Sondheim’s rarities. Nor, for that matter, does it trick you into thinking that it’s Chas & Dave in full “rockney” flight. Except there I might be misleading you – at least in part. The late Chas Hodges did indeed write, with various other collaborators, several of the songs in this show. One of them crops up in the middle of the first half. Grandad treats his fellow-drinkers in the Nag’s Head to a rousing rendition of “Where Have All the Cockneys Gone?”.

It’s 1989, gentrification is beginning, and they are moving out of London to Romford, Billericay, you name it. Grandad reels off all the places in a quick patter and segues, for good measure, into nostalgic snatches of “Any Old Iron”. He’s backed by a chorus of knee-bending jaunty geezers (the choreography is by the show’s director, Caroline Jay Ranger). This sequence makes Oliver! and Me and My Girl look almost punishingly avant-garde.

Welcome to Only Fools and Horses, the much-ballyhooed musical spin-off of the much-loved TV sitcom.

John Sullivan, the creator and writer of those programmes, was working on the current adaptation when he died of viral pneumonia in 2011. His son, Jim, took up the task, with Paul Whitehouse – who also plays Grandad rather beautifully – as co-author. The piece is aimed firmly (if not exclusively) at fans. There’s a quiz in the programme. Here are some of the answers:

6. Rodney (”Friday the 14th”)

7. Abdul (”To Hull and Back”)

8. Raquel (”Mother Nature’s Son”)

9. Rodney (”Wanted”)

10. Del (”Chain Gang”)

If you can work out what the questions were, this is the show for you. In fact, the producers missed a trick in not issuing bingo cards, because the catchphrases and in-joke references start coming thick and fast right from the voiceover warning at the start, which tells us that using recording devices is neither “pukka” nor “cushty”. House! The first prize could be a spin round Peckham in the Trotters’ yellow Robin Reliant, taking optional advantage of their nicked Disability Parking Permit.

Detractors of the original TV programmes say that they were a poor man’s Steptoe and Son transposed to the Thatcher era. Male co-dependency plus dodgy quick-rich-schemes. You might hope that a fresh look at the material would confirm that they were much more than this. But though the familiar routines are pleasingly recreated in what amounts to a compilation (spoiler alert: Del’s celebrated fall through the bar is cleverly positioned, just when you’d forgotten the tantalising teases that herald it).

Tom Bennett, Ryan Hutton and Whitehouse have the stiff challenge of stepping into the shoes of David Jason, Nicholas Lyndhurst and Lennard Pearce as, respectively, wide-boy Del, his much younger brother Rodney, and mournful Grandad. Three males living under one roof, without a mother or a fully kosher father figure. At first, I thought Bennett gave off an air of sexual confidence that runs slightly counter to the deep-down vulnerability and fear of a lonely future that Del has to mask with his devious, blustering market-trader shtik, blithely scattering cultural clangers. (There isn’t as much of a height difference between him and Hutton as there was between Jason and Lyndhurst which is a disadvantage.)

But Bennett becomes genuinely and subtly touching after Rodney’s upwardly mobile wedding as he contemplates life without the boy he jokily claims to have “breastfed”. Dianne Pilkington is lovely (and in great voice) as Raquel, the would-be actress and part-time stripper whose thwarted dreams mesh with those of Del, once he’s given up the pretence of being an international talent scout.

There is something crucially missing, though, from this musical – and that’s any truly compelling reason why these characters have to burst into song. It’s an eclectic score but maybe that’s just a fancy way of saying that it’s erratic. There are moments when it nods to show business. Limbering up for the dating agency, Del brushes down his bogus credentials for being thought a cosmopolitan smoothie with a vaudeville bowler-hat-and-cane dance routine and a song with idiotically Francophone pretensions: “Mange Tout, Mange Tout, Mange Tout”. Trigger has a ditty where he gazes into his late granny’s crystal ball and prophesies Peckham’s forthcoming prosperity. The London skyline turns into the one we look at today; a camp South American barista flounces on to grizzle about how the pedantically fine distinctions in how people want their coffee these days is giving him a nervous breakdown.

The power of prescience seems to be rife in Peckham, though. It allows, for example, the villainous Denis Driscoll to rhyme “refutin’” with “Putin” in 1989. Most bizarre of all, overbearing Boycie (very good Jeff Nicholson) booms out a number at the fertility clinic in which he bewails the burdens of trying doggedly for a baby while being low on sperm. It’s safe to say that it’s the destination rather the journey that appeals to Boycie. “Like it or lump it/I’ve just got to hump it/If I want an heir to my throne.” Tadpole shapes wriggle up the sky and explode like fireworks.

True, there is a moment in which the Trotters severally complain about the frustrations of mutual dependency: “They wind me up/They grind me down”. But you wait (in my view, in vain) for an emotionally clinching duet between Del Boy and Rodney that makes you laugh and tears at your heart. The level of inspiration tends to be low in TV-to-stage transfers. One exception was Victoria Wood’s musical makeover of Acorn Antiques which I shivered in a very select minority of critics in finding hilarious. I’m not saying that I crave a hip-hop version of To The Manor Born or Father Ted Goes Grunge. But a bit more artistic adventure than is evinced in this spin-off of Only Fools would be nice. The show is entertaining; it’s not a disgrace; I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. But “lovely jubbly”? Really? Don’t be a plonker.

To 31 August 2019. Telephone booking: 0207 930 8800