How best to adapt for the stage a piece of prose fiction as discursive and unstructured as Three Men in a Boat? Craig Gilbert's version has a nifty solution: the three men act it out in a riverside pub, Victoria Spearing's design convincing and detailed.
What is supposed to be a serious lecture on the Thames by Jerome K. Jerome (J) is hi-jacked by his facetious and argumentative friends. This offers a neat parallel to the original novel where Jerome himself sabotaged his initial plan to write a serious travel guide.
A further inspiration is to have a double booking at the Elusive Pelican. A serious young pianist is planning on playing Debussy to the locals (unlikely, I know) and instead is press-ganged into action as accompanist and assistant to the three men. Anna Westlake adds a whole range of wordless expression – vanity and disgruntlement, complicity and mischief – to her excellent playing and singing. On the way to the theatre I thought, "I bet the dog steals the show". The dog, an inanimate ornament, has a fine range of barks and yelps, but it's the pianist who steals the show!
Craig Gilbert's production for the Original Theatre Company has been honed by two previous tours and, now re-cast, takes to the road again. The result is a slick, well-coordinated show despite the disarming air of amateurishness.
The three chaps form a pretty homogeneous group in some ways – notably an aversion to anything resembling work and an unfocussed amiability – but they are also nicely differentiated. David Partridge's J sees himself as the senior partner and his bursts of pomposity form a comic contrast to his inability to resist japes. Tom Hackney's unworldly Harris is a delight, a naughty boy without a hint of malice, and Michael Rouse excels as George, marginally less innocent than the others, even the sardonic observer, displaying a fine voice that stops the jollity head-on with a beautifully sung folk song lament.
At times Gilbert's adaptation strains a bit too hard for the humour, but that's a feature it shares with the original, with its sometimes laboured wordplay. The occasional stepping out of period (references to fairly recent cinema or songs) is, I feel, a mixed blessing, but the audience response at Hull provided an effective answer to my doubts. Occasional bursts of comic music hall songs, put over with energy and wit, leave one asking for more.
As in the novel, comic momentum is not consistent, but the characters and situation are always engaging and the physical comedy (movement by the ubiquitous Matthew Bugg) never fails, especially in two death-defying efforts by the apparently non-athletic Harris.
Three Men In A Boat runs at Hull Truck Theatre until 7 February, before touring to Basildon's Towngate Theatre (9-10 February), Rose Theatre Kingston (12-14 February), Dundee Rep (17-21 February), Theatre Royal Windsor (23-28 February), Devonshire Park Theatre (3-7 March), Birmingham Old Rep (10-14 March), Mercury Theatre Colchester (23-25 March) and Venue Cymru (26-27 March).