Review: The Man in the White Suit (Wyndham's Theatre)
Sean Foley adapts the Ealing comedy classic for the stage
There are a lot of good intentions powering Sean Foley's adaptation of the Ealing comedy classic The Man in the White Suit towards the stage. But rather like its hero Stanley's experiments to invent an indestructible fabric that never needs washing, it blows up in everyone's face, leaving a lot of fine actors, including its star Stephen Mangan, lying wounded in the process.
The problem is that Foley as writer and director can never find the tone he wants to adopt. The 1951 Alexander Mackendrick film, starring Alec Guinness, is a slim but sophisticated fable about the collision between scientific idealism and gritty Northern textile mill reality, as both mill owners and unions realise that Stanley's well-meaning brainwave threatens their entire way of life.
The stage version is a broad, badly-timed, slapstick comedy, with skiffle songs applied on top (written by former Noah and the Whale frontman Charlie Fink, and played on stage by the amiable Matthew Durkan, his band sliding around him from the most unlikely places). It is effortful where it needs to be effortless, and you can feel the participants straining for the laughs that even with a willing audience are sometimes slow to arrive.
Mangan does his best, applying his considerable baffled charm to the accident-prone Cambridge graduate, whose experiments make fart noises, and cause all kinds of explosions. The best scenes feature him and the mill owner's daughter Daphne (played by Kara Tointon with a crazed plummy accent and a designer 50s wardrobe), attempting to make their own kind of chemistry (a joke naturally underlined in a heavy-handed song). In one, staged with some ingenuity, he chases her MG sports car, his body flying sideways as he clings on while she speeds along the country lanes. In the other, they are locked in a room together and with the help of Lizzi Gee's choreography, she displays her Strictly Come Dancing skills in an amorous dance of seduction as he tries desperately to escape.
But such joyful pickings are slim. The pace is always slightly too fast or too slow for the gags; a fight with heavy swords starts promisingly but ends up laboured; there's an awful lot of shouting and mugging with the odd prorogation and Brexit joke thrown in. A plea for sustainability and sense in our consumption rears its head but is then lost in the general mayhem. Good actors are almost entirely wasted (Sue Johnston as Stanley's landlady) or pushed too far over the top (Richard Cordery as the choleric mill owner; Rina Fatania as a trade union activist). Subtlety and true wit, there is none.
In fact, the only aspect of the production that truly captures the sweet eccentricity at the heart of Ealing comedies, is Michael Taylor's set which – with its pipes running to the ceiling and delicately painted backdrops – cleverly conjures a variety of settings and provides a genuinely charming solution to the problem of how to stage a scene where Stanley is chased through the streets by a baying mob. And it's always a bad sign when you walk out of a so-called comedy praising the sets.