Lazily, the 1970s have been portrayed as a sort of hangover decade after the vividness of The Sixties; quaint old hippie tendencies having to shove over and make room for proper adult pursuits like careers and parenthood.
The Good Life, the sitcom which ran on BBC1 for three years from 1975, rather muddied that simplistic picture, and a good job too. This stage version, based on the highly popular TV series, serves as a reminder that Tom and Barbara, the couple originally played by Richard Briers and Felicity Kendall, were in fact forerunners of an ongoing middle-class push to swap suburban slavery for supposed rural liberty. In a quaint twist of its own, recent history makes pioneers of those apparently naïf dreamers.
This lively stage adaptation by director Jeremy Sams is true to the letter as well as the spirit of those times. In case you have forgotten, Tom was a talented but disaffected draughtsman. Much of his energy in the play’s opening stages is directed at expressing the awfulness of his pre-enlightenment job, designing plastic figures for cereal packets.
Meanwhile, his neighbour Jerry (Dominic Rowan taking the Paul Eddington role) appears to be thriving in corporate life. This discordant side-by-sideness is ingenuously represented here by set designer Michael Taylor, whose walls turn inside out to become the next-door properties, giving physical force to the notion of the TV series’ creators, John Esmonde and Bob Larbey, that adjoining can be dangerously close to dividing.
Tom is turning forty, which, let’s not forget, was older then that it is now. They’re celebrating, even though the birthday boy is ruing the fact that the body starts breaking down, “officially,” from here. There are no kids. Not because they haven’t “tried,” says Barbara; they haven’t “not tried” either. They live in Surbiton which, then more than now, was always a reliable source of laughter for its alleged mediocrity and quiet despair.
The two couples’ approaches to life become first incompatible, then rivalrous, not least because both men have worked for the same company JJM, whose managing director, “Sir,” makes their personal lives his own, and his wife’s, business. Nigel Betts, who plays him with a gloriously dated pomposity, doubles, or rather quadruples, as pigman, saviour-hearted copper and doctor. In this last guise, he takes control of the tenderly farcical scene centring on the birth drama of a desperately premature piglet in Tom and Barbara’s kitchen.
As Jeremy Sams is well aware, there’s heavy matter here, and inevitable echoes of Ayckbourn characters striving for fulfilments of a kind that material sufficiency cannot provide. There are also unexpected outbreaks of acceptance, most poignantly from Jerry’s wife Margo (Preeya Kalidas), after embarrassing failure in a local musical.
No small children (yet) to upstage the squabbling grown-ups, but there is an animal, an in-house goat so lifelike – until it defecates on cue – that it gets a round of applause.
It can be a risky trick to re-heat classic TV sitcom for contemporary consumption, but Sams and his cast, particularly Rufus Hound and Sally Tatum as Tom and Barbara, bring it properly done from the Aga.
Review by Alan Franks
Remember the Goods – Tom and Barbara, suburban eco-warriors? And their next-door neighbours Margo and Jerry Leadbetter, desperately trying to maintain the Surbiton status quo? Jeremy Sams’s comedy leads the well-loved characters through uproarious adventures, some old, some new and often (even today) hilariously familiar. This new play celebrates a time when, whatever our differences, we still managed to get on with our neighbours.
Beloved BBC comedy THE GOOD LIFE ran on British television from 1975 to 1978 starring Richard Briers, Felicity Kendal, Penelope Keith and Paul Eddington.
Fiery Angel presents
THE GOOD LIFE
Adapted and directed by Jeremy Sams based on the TV series by John Esmonde and Bob Larbey
Set and Costume Design by Michael Taylor
Lighting Design by Mark Henderson
Sound Design by Fergus O’Hare
Composition by Tim Sutton
Casting by Ginny Schiller CDG
23rd November – 27th November 2021
Book Tickets for Richmond Theatre
0333 009 6690
30th November – 4th December 2021
Chichester Festival Theatre
cft.org.uk | 01243 781 312