Festival Theatre, Malvern, Monday 10th June, 2013
While musical theatre seems intent on adapting every old film it can find for the stage, straight theatre (so to speak) has its own fad for stringing together episodes of old television sitcoms in order to provide an evening’s entertainment. We’ve already had Birds Of A Feather, which at least had the actual stars from the telly treading the boards; and dinnerladies, which was like a tribute act. This current tour of Rising Damp is more like the latter than the former, although one of the show’s original stars, Don Warrington who played Philip, directs this adaptation. If anyone knows how to handle this material, it is Don Warrington.
Current TV sitcoms have a retro feel to them (Mrs Brown’s Boys, Miranda, Vicious) so it might seem timely to disinter this old show from the 70s, but it only serves to show the cracks and the rotten patches – much like Rigsby’s house. At the time, Rigsby was an Alf Garnett character, spouting all manner of outrageous comments, mocked and outwitted by his tenants, members of a more progressive and indeed permissive society. These days, with alternative comedy and political correctness having changed the comedic landscape, Rigsby’s racist and sexist remarks have a sharper edge: this is no longer mockery of the old order. Rigsby pricks our sensibilities and seems more offensive. As long as you remember to laugh at him rather than with him.
Audience expectations dictate the style of performance. Rigsby must be the way Leonard Rossiter played him, Miss Jones must be like Frances de la Tour… and so the actors are judged on how well they evoke the original cast. It all adds to the nostalgic appeal.
Stephen Chapman is very good as Rossiter-Rigsby. All the mannerisms are there. Paul Morse gives us glimpses of the late Richard Beckinsale in his performance of hapless tenant Alan. Amanda Hadingue captures de la Tour’s intonation and melodramatic posturing as Miss Jones, but Cornelius Macarthy’s Philip commands the stage with his grandiloquent claims about native life in Africa. The whole thing is a reconstruction and the cast is very skilful but I wonder if we’re not better off watching repeats on a minor satellite channel instead. In half hour bursts, once a week, the material is rather amusing. In this two-hour chunk it seems a bit thin. The funniest moments are tried-and-tested stock ideas that date back as far as Plautus. Eric Chappell’s dialogue has traces of Joe Orton every now and then.
Confined by its sitcom origins, the plot cannot really develop, the characters cannot really learn and grow. There is some attempt at dramatic progression: the first act involves Alan moving in and meeting the others. The second, funnier act has the characters in full flight and ends (spoiler alert for those who haven’t seen the series) with Alan moving out. Rigsby and Philip’s false claims of being a war hero and an African prince respectively have been exposed and the two men form some kind of friendship as the lights fade…
I came away wondering what someone who had never heard of the TV series might get from this production. Nostalgia is its biggest draw, although by giving an odious bigot like Rigsby centre stage, it does remind us that his abhorrent and groundless prejudices are to be mocked – at the very least. Attitudes like his belong in the realms of comedy rather than being leant unwarranted credibility and merit in the political arena. In an updated version, Rigsby would be standing for UKIP.