Jeremy Sams, adapter and director of this stage version of the popular 1970s sitcom The Good Life, points out how current the central clash of ideas seems to be. On the one hand, we have careerist Gerry (played here by Dominic Rowan) and his shamelessly snobbish wife, Margo (Preeya Kalidas, commandeering a wardrobe once occupied by Penelope Keith). Gerry accepts that he’s doing a job he doesn’t like to make money to buy stuff he doesn’t need for a wife who’ll never be satisfied, but that’s life, isn’t it?
Well, not according to their next-door-neighbours, Tom (Rufus Hound stepping into Richard Briers’s wellies) and Barbara Good (Sally Tatum taking on Felicity Kendal’s creation).
On Tom’s 40th birthday, they decide to give up the rat race and become self-sufficient smallholders (albeit whilst continuing to live in deepest suburbia, semi-attached to Gerry and Margo). COVID19 (and the rest) has us back there, wrestling with these matters, Sams argues. He has a point.
There are two big questions facing anyone intending to adapt a vintage sitcom for the stage:
(1) is there an audience out there?
(2) how are the cast to approach it?
Given that, at its peak, 16 million Britons tuned in weekly to watch the mishaps and adventures of these suburban self-sufficiency warriors, (1) must have seemed a safe bet. However, any fan who was Tom’s age when the show launched would now be 86 (sadly, neither of the male leads – Briers and the much-loved Paul Eddington – have made it this far). That said, there’s a respectable turnout for a Tuesday night at the Lowry (perhaps a third of the Lyric theatre’s 1200-seater capacity). How many of them are (as I am) children of the original devotees would make an interesting study. Nostalgia moving in mysterious ways?
The matter of how the cast should approach the roles is genuinely vexed. Revivals/adaptations of Steptoe and Son, Hancock’s Half Hour and the like have often (and wisely) chosen the ‘impersonation’ option. Tonight’s cast are one step removed from that. They are recognisably Tom, Barbara, Margo and Gerry – but not quite as we knew them. Nobody lets the side down, but there is a constant sense of watching Shakin’ Stevens trying to pull off Elvis Presley’s songbook – a shade too much disbelief to suspend. Rufus Hound’s Tom, in particular, has the feel of an artist in shackles.
Jeremy Sams’s adaptation is neatly done, weaving the first episode into one of the most memorable (the runt piglet) and on into a cosy, heart-warming finale. Interestingly, the sentimental aspects of this production often work better than the comic ones.
The direction – also by Sams – needs a reboot. The cast seems to lack confidence in the script’s quips. The occasional very funny moment comes off, but regular opportunities to raise a chuckle, or even a knowing smile, are rushed through. Sitcom is character-com, and our four principals don’t quite seem to trust their characters.
In support, Nigel Betts and Tessa Churchard have fun multitasking (especially in the poorly piglet episode).
Michael Taylor’s sets and costumes do a good job of evoking the originals (although Kalidas often carries off Margo’s look with a little too much style).
The crux for such ventures is: does this experience offer something you can’t get by staying home with a boxset of the original? The prime hope here lies with that special something performers and audiences can create together in a theatre. Whilst that may, in time, emerge, it’s not there yet with this production.