Review: Only Fools and Horses the Musical (Theatre Royal Haymarket)

The musical based on the cult classic sitcom comes to the West End

The cast of Only Fools and Horses the Musical
The cast of Only Fools and Horses the Musical
© Johan Persson

If ever a new musical was critic-proof, it's this one; try getting a couple of decent seats within the next month or so if you don't believe me. Co-written by Jim Sullivan, whose late father John penned the stupendously popular TV series, and Paul Whitehouse, who also – rather beautifully – plays Grandad, this rollicking stage treatment comes bowling into the unlikely confines of the ornate Theatre Royal Haymarket on a cloud of boundless goodwill, irrepressible humour and a carefully cultivated sense of the familiar.

It's not a well-crafted musical in the traditional sense but then you'd expect a stage life of the Peckham Trotters to be a bit rough-round-the-edges. It has heart, wit and warmth by the bucketload. Then there are the characters…

The Trotter brothers, those roguish, likeable, permanently on-the-make denizens of rundown 1980s Peckham, translate incredibly well to the stage: their larger-than-life idiosyncrasies and those of their vividly drawn chums – chronically dim Trigger, dodgy Mickey Pearce, flamboyantly nouveau riche Boycie and Marlene, all recreated with unerring accuracy here – sometimes threatened to fairly burst out of the screens during the programme's heyday. Caroline Jay Ranger's bouncy, superbly paced staging has countless references to golden moments from the show's twenty year history, and if at times this feels like an extended sitcom episode with songs shoe-horned in, well, that is exactly what most of the fans will be here for. The reveal of the Trotters council flat, meticulously recreated by Liz Ascroft, garners its own round of applause.

Equally exhilaratingly, Tom Bennett's turn as Del Boy heralds the arrival of a blazingly impressive new musical theatre talent. Bennett does more than just offer up an (admittedly uncanny) recreation of David Jason's beloved original, capturing all the swagger, underhandedness, cheeky charm, vulnerability and strange campness that made Derek Trotter such compelling, if infuriating, company. This stage Del Boy also sings like a dream, banters winningly with the front stalls and then insouciantly goes into a top hat and cane routine like a Sarf London Fred Astaire. It's a gorgeous performance, and hopefully not Bennett's last outing in a musical.

Ryan Hutton's relentlessly pessimistic, endlessly lovable Rodney may not look much like Nicholas Lyndhurst in the original but has his lugubrious drawl down to a tee. Whitehouse's lovely, touching performance as Grandad brings a real lump to the throat, as does Dianne Pilkington, genuinely wonderful as sweet, damaged Raquel, Del Boy's love interest.

The score is a mish-mash of original songs, of which Pilkington's rueful, exquisitely sung ballad "The Girl" is far and away the best, with a couple of '80s pop tunes thrown in for reasons I couldn't quite fathom, beyond reminding us what era the show is set in. There's even a rousing chorus of the old Cockney favourite "Any Old Iron" which feels appropriate in a show that often seems pitched nearer to variety and music hall than legit musical theatre. The magnificent company number which splices together the shows' two theme tunes is a bona fide showstopper and one of the few moments where the production truly felt justified in being a musical rather than a straightforward stage adaptation.

In an over long second half, a couple of the songs feel like stuffing and aren't strong enough to justify stopping the comedy action. However there is real satirical wit in the number where Peter Baker's joyfully gormless Trigger gazes into his crystal ball and foresees a present day Peckham populated by hipsters, artisan bakers and highly strung baristas. The uneasy introduction of violence late in the plot slightly spoils the tone of what is mostly a raucous, fun-filled evening.

Despite its flaws, it's refreshing to see a new musical that, probably for the first time since Our House, revels in its London setting and unapologetic Britishness. Plus it's often laugh-out-loud funny. Cushty. Just don't let those Trotters anywhere near any of the Haymarket's stunning chandeliers.