Played on James Cottrill’s simple but effective set of dark blue vinyl and soaring white woodwork, the boat, bulging at the seams with men, dog, banjo, picnic basket et al, makes its slow progress between Kingston-Upon-Thames and Oxford.
Francis himself plays the champagne-swigging, curmudgeonly-and-effusive-by-turns Jerome (and his dog Montmorency) relating the tale of the watery Victorian jaunt. Neil Stacy is the buffoon George whose loud blazer and sleepy work ethic is a point of fun for his friends while Simon Ward is the dry-humoured, laconic Harris.
The trio step in and out of character with ease, bringing to life the folk they meet on their way – including vicars and irate landowners - in this quintessentially English tale of the upper classes at play, with more than a liberal dose of the music hall genre as they struggle with the weather, on-board tents and Aunt Tabatha’s pork pie.
Francis, who has previously adapted the Hound of the Baskervilles and The Lavender Hill Mob for the stage, chose Three Men in a Boat as his next project for a very personal reason. Having worked with former child star Jack Wild (the Artful Dodger in Oliver), Francis was keen to work with him again and thought the non-speaking part of Montmorency would suit the actor who was stricken with throat cancer and so unable to work. Unfortunately, Wild died before that was possible.
Three Men in a Boat provides no great drama or hilarity just a series of amusing vignettes which left the Plymouth (mainly grey) audience with a smile on their faces.
- Karen Bussell (reviewed at Plymouth Theatre Royal)
Messing about in boats on a river. The picture thus conjured up is quintessentially English, redolent of summer days in an idyllic time which is never quite the present - and certainly not the future.
The two classic stories which crystallise this were published within twenty years of each other, crucially both before the First World War darkened the landscape for both authors and for millions of others. One is Kenneth Graham's The Wind in the Willows (1908); the other is Jerome K. Jerome's "Three Men in a Boat" (1889).
Clive Francis has adapted this for the stage with what is obviously great affection and an appreciation of the world of late Victorian middle-class male Londoners depicted. It's a world of close, easy-going male friendships with wives respected but left at home and employment undertaken but not allowed to intrude on leisure.
Not unnaturally, he has taken the main role of Jerome for himself and makes the character a real, if slightly infuriating, person. Neil Stacy plays the far more laid-back George, with Simon Ward as eager-beaver Harris. Oh yes, and there's also a dog, voiced by whichever of the cast isn't otherwise speaking.
Putting a watery adventure on stage is never the easiest of undertakings. James Cotterill has designed a slightly too-clever revolving set with shimmery panels suggesting the flow of the Thames and, for my money, reflecting too much frantic stage management in the wings.
Director Paul Jepson keeps the whole thing skimming along with weight given to each actor's set piece. I particularly liked the Gilbert & Sullivan episode for Ward; well, you try singing the patter song from HMS Pinafore to the accompaniment for the one from Trial by Jury!
All in all it makes a pleasant and undemanding evening's entertainment. It's true to the book and the cast is strong. Yet for all that, there's a key element missing which is hard to define. Can it perhaps be that a genuine partiality for a book such as this one waterlogs its inherent theatricality?
- Anne Morley-Priestman (reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester)