THREE MEN IN A BOAT
Derby Theatre, Wednesday 14th November, 2012
Jerome K Jerome’s book is one of the funniest ever written, even now over a century from its original publication. To make a funny stage adaptation presents its own challenges – you can’t just have actors reciting passages from the book – that does the material and the theatrical form no favours. Craig Gilbert’s script for this show retains huge swathes of Jerome, to be sure, but there is also a contemporary sense of humour at work.
The setting is the back room of the Elusive Pelican, the kind of rural pub the heart hankers for, with junk on shelves, mismatched chairs and even a stuffed trout over the door. An Edwardian lady (Sue Appleby) arrives to treat us to a Chopin prelude on the piano. After some rough treatment from a costumed stage hand, her recital begins, only to be interrupted by the arrival of the titular trio, all resplendent in colourful, striped blazers, singing a spirited rendition of Row, Row, Row Your Boat. And so, the music hall approach is established, although ostensibly this is an address to the Royal Geographical Society or some such, given by “J” assisted and hindered by his two friends, George and Harris.
Using handy items from around the pub, they narrate and re-enact the story of their boat trip up the Thames, portraying all the other characters themselves by donning hats etc and contorting their voices in an almost Pythonesque way.
This approach, requiring an enormous amount of energy from the performers, not to mention versatility and physicality, gives rise to a very entertaining piece. The style reminded me of the highly successful stage version of The 39 Steps. (That show even gets a reference at one point!)
Jerome’s narrative is episodic and meandering but as we get further upstream, the modern sense of humour becomes more prevalent. There is flatulence. There are pop culture references to, among other things, Jaws, Titanic and The Good, the Bad & the Ugly… Purists might not like the sound of this, and I confess I was a little taken aback, but the sheer effulgence of the performance won me over. The book is the springboard or rather the launching place, for this show, which is its own animal. But, even with all the silliness and the vulgarity, often it is Jerome’s words that get the biggest laughs.
As “J”, Original Theatre Company founder Alastair Whatley is an affable if arrogant narrator. Tom Hackney’s Harris throws himself around the set with reckless abandon; and Christopher Brandon’s George delivers some of the funniest character cameos – I especially liked his cat and his sexton. The trio – well, the quartet, really – is a tight ensemble – the movement (directed by Mitch Mitchelson) is well-choreographed and funny. The timing is spot on. I especially liked the asides, but also the use of pub-based items to create settings and situations with speed and economy, is highly effective. The action is supported throughout by Appleby at the piano, adding another dimension to the humour, and there is a knowing ‘breaking of the 4th wall” cheekiness to the whole affair.
Craig Gilbert directs his own adaptation. The pace never flags and there is enough contrast of tone to keep the piece feeling fresh. The spirit of the Jerome original survives intact. Original Theatre’s original take on the material is refreshing, hilarious and so well-presented, you forgive them some of their off-colour excesses. Bursting with energy, banter and silliness, it is well worth the price of the ticket to take a trip with these particular three men, their pianist and their little dog too.
But watch out for marauding swans!