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The Lavender Hill Mob tour – review

The classic Ealing Comedy comes to the stage

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
The cast of The Lavender Hill Mob
© Hugo Glendinning

While it can be surprising to see a 1951 film being adapted for the stage in 2022, it turns out that sometimes there is a lot to be learnt from post-war culture. We are living in an economic depression of sorts, post-pandemic and post-Brexit and The Lavender Hill Mob, dubbed the 17th greatest British film of all time by the BFI, may offer just the tonic. The new adaptation is being produced by a powerhouse team of big international award-winners, who, it seems, know what they are doing.

Let's set the scene. It's the 1950s, and a group of posh middle-aged British couples are celebrating New Year's Eve in a British gentlemen's club in Rio de Janeiro, decorated in Union Jacks and bunting. Farrow (Guy Burgess) has come from England to join them. He is visiting Henry Holland (Miles Jupp) and wants to hear Holland's life story. The other guests get excited and make a big fuss of the visitor, whom they imagine to be a novelist or a film director. They collectively decide to act out Holland's story for him right there at the party, an endeavour which turns the show into a play-within-a-play. We find out that Holland is a nobody – an employee in charge of protecting the gold bullion at the Royal Mint – until one day he decides to steal the gold. He gathers up a gang of accomplices and together they hatch a plan that will make them rich. But will they succeed, or will they be caught?

The show is suitable for children aged eight plus, and, refreshingly for the largely adult audience, there is a sparkling sense of childlike wonder in the world-building of the story. The actors invest themselves wholeheartedly in the vocal effect of a bird cooing or a steering wheel made of a foil plate. Two curved pieces of scaffolding come together to form a resplendent Eiffel Tower, which looms over us when the cast climb up it. One wonderful scene sees the characters enter a room one by one and become immediately dazzled by the gold bullion, which in turn looks dazzling to the audience with the sudden golden stage lights shining on it, before they turn dark and shadowy the minute when there is danger in the air. The stage management team of this production deserves an applause for their sharp, sophisticated work with cues and props.

Storytelling is where the show comes to life, but the actors' multiroling is what gets the laughs, especially Lady Agnes (Tessa Churchard) and Audrey (Victoria Blunt), who play the cockney criminal ne'er-do-wells of Holland's gang, as well as a whole host of other characters, from bent-over old ladies to angry taxi drivers. Both have a fantastic sense of character comedy and excellent comic timing.

Some of the show's humour admittedly doesn't quite land, and the energy takes time to get going at the start and dips a little in between the storytelling sections. One early gag – which rests on a party guest being repeatedly interrupted and not getting to play any roles in the story – is not set up quite clearly enough, and the timing and physicality of the punchlines gets lost. Some fine-grained directorial shifts would help to sharpen up the humour.

Still, these are small comments and many of the jokes do land, partially because of some great performances and partially because this is top-notch, classic British comedy writing. You can't help but chuckle at the blubbering, suited gentlemen in bowler hats who act calm and polite when they're deep in the mud.

Stylistically, it reminds me of Noël Coward or Only Fools and Horses and while I don't know the original film, the adaptation works beautifully for the stage and embraces the possibilities offered up by theatrical conventions like lighting, set and multiroling. It takes the audience on a good-humoured romp of danger and excitement. One walks out onto the street contentedly, satisfied as though one has had a hearty meal with good friends.