What would you do if you met the scoundrel who burgled your house, "on the job", so to speak? Would you shoot him, arrest him, or let him walk away? These are the questions which Eric Chappell, writer of Rising Damp and other television successes, poses in this rather unlikely light comedy.
Leslie Grantham and Joanna Van Gyseghem play a successful and ruthless businessman and his socially superior but dependent wife, who are weekending in their country house together with their rather less successful friends (Peter Alexander and Sandra Payne). Returning from dinner, they find an old lag called Spriggs (Roy Hudd) who, with his associates, has cleared the valuables, but has yet to make his getaway. Quite apart from turning over the house, Spriggs has also rifled through personal papers and incidentals and has acquired a spooky knowledge of the hidden lives, and relationships of his victims. Turning out to be not quite as incompetent as he first appears, the burglar attempts to turn the other characters against each other in an effort to gain his release.
Fortunately, Chappell has the ability to turn this scenario (which could otherwise have been a po-faced and inferior version of An Inspector Calls), into a passably amusing evening. Looking back on Chappell's TV career, it's apparent he's concerned - not only in Rising Damp, but also in other shows such as The Bounder and Duty Free - with social status and values. Though no JB Priestley, Chappell certainly knows his craft so far as comedy writing is concerned.
There are some sharp one-liners, delivered with gusto by the high calibre cast, and in particular Van Gyseghem. The ensemble is somewhat unbalanced, however, by Hudd's tendency to mug and do a turn, rather than deliver a performance. As an Alfred P Doolittle style moral philosopher, ruminating on middle class values, he's less than convincing, although he, too, has his moments, particularly so when trying to con his way out of trouble by feigning ill health. The audience loves him and, I must admit, he is very watchable. Director Jeremy Meadow could, perhaps, impose a little more discipline.
TV watchers will be unsurprised to find Grantham ("Dirty Den" in Eastenders) playing to type as the gun happy, wealthy and determined businessman, although his character seems to be underwritten. As such, he delivers a creditable performance. Alexander and Payne also impress as the friends caught in the crossfire.
Theft is not really West End material, but will surely tour with success and deservedly so.
- Stephen Gilchrist (reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Brighton)