The downstairs bar at the Theatre Royal Haymarket during the interval really was the place to be at the performance I attended of Only Fools and Horses The Musical. Here were, amongst theatre regulars, people who were not regular patrons of the theatre, but were clearly fans of the BBC Television series. It was their opinions I was particularly interested in. There were many views expressed, including someone who had been ‘dragged along’ to see the show who thought the whole thing was flogging a proverbial dead horse. Not so ‘lovely jubbly’.
Of those who wanted to be there, two points of view were especially memorable. The first was that if one were to momentarily close one’s eyes during the performance, and listen to the cast, they do authentically sound like the characters as we know them from the telly. One man even went as far as to say that it might as well be Sir David Jason and Nicholas Lyndhurst themselves on stage. There’s a compliment in there somewhere, particularly for Ryan Hutton, making his professional debut in this production as Rodney.
The second salient viewpoint was that (according to a fellow theatregoer) you’re going to love Only Fools and Horses The Musical if you already love Only Fools and Horses the sitcom. I take his point, though of course, it is entirely possible not to have seen a single episode and yet enjoy proceedings: the plotlines are not exactly complicated. Even so, it is best enjoyed as a ‘period piece’ – some of the punchlines sound like they really do belong in a bygone era, and the female leads, Raquel (Dianne Pilkington) and Cassandra (Lisa Bridge at the performance I attended, understudying for Pippa Duffy) are somewhat underdeveloped as characters.
There was much sympathy for Grandad (Paul Whitehouse), especially during a musical number in which he expresses feelings of loneliness and isolation as a result of constantly being told ‘Not Now Grandad’. Nods to The Phantom of the Opera, playing across the road at Her Majesty’s Theatre, appear in both acts. (Well, it’s also a nod to ‘A Touch of Glass’, series 2 episode 7.) But despite the twenty musical numbers, there are times when the show feels as though its characters are talking too much and for too long in a musical.
I wonder how much disbelief should be suspended at the front doors in this instance – some had hardly done so at all, cheering enthusiastically whenever certain characters appeared for the first time, and even I couldn’t resist a round of applause for the yellow Reliant Robin as it arrived on stage. The set (Liz Ascroft) functions with the sleekness and speed that a West End production should. A five-piece band, led by Stuart Morley, glide through the score with skill and precision.
While the characters are imitated excellently, there’s also wit and warmth to accompany the technical brilliance. The most memorable tunes are, aside from ‘Hooky Street’ and ‘This Time Next Year’, renderings of Bill Withers’ ‘Lovely Day’ and Simply Red’s ‘Holding Back The Years’, which somehow sit fairly comfortably with the other tunes, which are largely firmly in the land of Cockney vocabulary.
A cameo appearance from Uncle Albert, meant to be such a surprise that he’s not even credited in the show’s programme, is pure gold. Some intriguing observations about ‘the future’ from Peter Baker’s Trigger looks forward thirty years from the musical’s 1989 setting – and Peckham certainly is different in 2019 from what it was a generation ago. There are unexpected comedy moments, too, including one from Oscar Conlon-Morrey’s ‘Dating Agent’ character, who sets up Del Boy’s (Tom Bennett) dating profile with great aplomb. Amusing and aspirational, this production is a charming trip down memory lane.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Mais ouis, mais ouis, the world may have changed a lot since we first bid a jovial ‘au revoir’ to the Trotters of Peckham, but good ‘ol Del Boy, Rodney and the rest of the gang haven’t changed a bit… well, apart from the odd spontaneous bursting into song here, and the occasional dancing across the market, there.
The landmark, record-breaking and top-rated television series Only Fools and Horses, written by the late, great John Sullivan, undoubtedly holds a special place in the hearts of the British public. Now John’s son Jim Sullivan has teamed up with comedy giant Paul Whitehouse to write and produce a script and score to honour his father’s legacy; recreating the iconic series into a brand-new, home-grown British Musical spectacular. Lovely Jubbly!
Written by Paul Whitehouse and Jim Sullivan, fully endorsed by the Sullivan estate.
Monday – Saturday: 7.30pm, Wednesday & Saturday: 2.30pm
Theatre Royal Haymarket, Haymarket, London, SW1Y 4HT