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Three Men in a Boat, The Original Theatre Company, Touring | reviews, news & interviews

Three Men in a Boat, The Original Theatre Company, Touring

Three Men in a Boat, The Original Theatre Company, Touring

Jolly boating music-hall as Jerome K Jerome's silly asses barge down the Thames

Barging up the Thames: Michael Rouse, Tom Hackney and David PartridgeImages © Jack Ladenburg

It’s a hostage to fortune really to create a play on one of the funniest books ever written, and a Victorian one at that.

Still, Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat is regularly mined for stage and small screen entertainment, and this version by Craig Gilbert turns out to be a diverting and enjoyable touring show for Britain’s small town theatres, for which hurray, and particularly so for towns on the Thames, where the boat hired by J, George and Harris is being ever so uncertainly steered.

The striped blazers, overgrown schoolboy indolence, and the constant practical joking on each other, all make for tight, daft, slapstick theatre in this four-hander for the three chaps and a stray female pianist who is apparently in the wrong place at the wrong time. That the accent will be on physical theatre comes as a surprise from the start, seeing the richly detailed but cramped interior of The Elusive Pelican, a beat-up little pub relishably designed by Victoria Spearing. You wouldn’t think there was enough room. But as the friends recreate their watery expedition, hauling chairs, tables, hampers into service as props for their mishaps, their routines are all the merrier for the precision needed for these nightly pratfalls.

The premise is that J’s supposed serious talk about the Thames to us, the audience in the Pelican, is chronically distracted by the double booking with Miss Nelly Hancock, the pianist who came to play Debussy. Male threesomes like this have a deathless tradition in English comedy: pompous J, eager-beaver George and the ever-hungry fatty Harris give out as much a whiff of The Young Ones or Monty Python as a panoply of Victorian types. David Partridge, Michael Rouse and Tom Hackney are all vital performers and knife-sharp at the slapstick choreographed by Matthew Bugg.

I went in curiosity about the old JKJ humour, of which today’s directors and actors remain such fans, so it seemed a cop-out that so many of their jokes are made with modern cultural references ("Rock the boat", ho ho, Titanic, ho hum). Still, there are some inspired bits of business too. The hunt for the lost toothbrush is whipped into a little horror movie, with Miss Nelly thumping out Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony opening notes, like an alarmed “Uh-oh”, and there is at least the poignant halt retained from the book when the three see a young woman’s body fished out of the Thames as they pass.

Anna Westlake, 3 Men in a BoatThe eclecticism of the musical contributions from music-hall and folksong to pop song and TV jingle is a bit like Harris’s stew of unexpected ingredients. Some will find it delicious, and roar with laughter, like most of the audience in Windsor’s ice-cream-pretty little theatre this week; others will be sorry for the superficiality of the resemblance. Either way, Anna Westlake's Miss Nelly (pictured left) comes close to stealing the show. Montmorency the dog, one should add, is solidly performed.

Certainly the transformation from page to stage has to be a wholesale rethink. Even if the dredging has taken out much old sediment, I can’t doubt that the stagers love the book and will be delighted if we all go and read it, and also that they enjoy the physical possibilities of even Britain's smallest theatre stages. That sense of love animates this merry diversion.

  •  The Original Theatre Company's Three Men in a Boat tours on to Eastbourne, Birmingham, Colchester and Llandudno till 27 March
I can’t doubt that the stagers love the book and will be delighted if we all go and read it


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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