It’s hardly a surprise that Porridge, written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, translates so well from TV screen to fringe theatre. After all, the nature of the story dictates that the play has to be staged in a single set with few props.
Habitual criminal Norman Stanley Fletcher regards arrest as an occupational hazard. A judge, recognising that Fletcher perceives imprisonment in the same casual manner, sends him to gaol for five years. Here the two meet again when the judge is sent down for corruption and their discussions bring to light the inequities of the justice system- in a suitably humorous manner.
Director Colin Connor tweaks the scripts to bring the story up to date with references to modern celebrities, recent events and local landmarks (Fletcher remarks he discovered he was middle, not working class, when he visited Salford). But his most significant achievement is making a distinction between the atmosphere of the screen and stage versions of the story.
Connor drops the audience into the cell with the prisoners. It is a very effective technique and part of the more realistic approach that distinguishes the stage show from its classic forebear. When the lights are extinguished in the prison the stage is plunged into darkness but the performance continues in the gloom. In the style of Shawshank Redemption the moans and cries of desperate prisoners are audible from off-stage. This does not makes the show less funny – it is impossible to not laugh at a character who opens chocolate bars underwater to avoid sharing- but it brings a refreshing new aspect to material that might otherwise become too familiar.
A strong cast welcomes the challenge of re-interpreting iconic characters. Gobper is more vulnerable - holding a pillow tightly as if for comfort. Fletcher, whilst retaining his trademark wit and rhetoric, has a tougher more physical edge. A bit more Godfather figure than father figure. The cast contribute to the atmosphere of the play – greeting the audience as if they are visiting inmates and quizzing attendees about the contents of bags.
Porridge is a fine example of how to adapt a classic to ensure it remains relevant and that new aspects are revealed by applying an imaginative approach and also treating the original with the respect it deserves.