Review: The Lavender Hill Mob (Theatre Royal Glasgow)
Updated: Jul 28, 2023
An adaptation of a British classic that is bursting with energy
After world-changing events that leave British audiences weary, it’s unsurprisingly that we tend to turn to comedy. As this is the first year where the (whisper it) pandemic finally seems to be behind us, it makes sense to start the year with an adaptation of a post-war comedy classic, 1951’s The Lavender Hill Mob. From a tacky British bar in Rio de Janeiro, ex-bank clerk Henry Holland (Miles Jupp) recounts the story of how he robbed his own bank back in Blighty. It’s a low-tech heist caper that he and a host of ex-pats and bar staff act out in fine detail for a mysterious visitor called Farrow (Guy Burgess), who isn’t quite what he seems.
Not that it takes long to figure it out. The play leaves plenty of breadcrumbs to let audiences work it out without bashing them over the head with the answer. It says something of the confidence that director Jeremy Sams has in his own creative vision that this is given away early on. This is a comedy that knows it is funny enough not to rely on reveals and denouements to be entertaining, which is all down to the staging. The set is decked from floor to ceiling in the kind of patriotic memorabilia that would be embarrassing to witness on home turf but seems right at home in tourist pubs abroad. And yet it plays host to a mint, a factory, a car chase, a ferry port, and the Eiffel tower, and never leaves the audience second-guessing about where they are meant to be. That is the kind of creative staging I expect to see in small-stage black-box productions where directors don’t have a choice but to reimagine the space, so it is refreshing to see it in a touring big-screen adaptation with names attached. It goes to show that the best theatrical moments come from strong direction and simple, imaginative staging, rather than wowing audiences with cheap tricks and big budgets.
Photo Credit: Hugo Glendinning
The comedy is also at its best when it is at its most theatrical. The dialogue in between isn’t nearly as witty as it wants to be, see “why are we using bananas for guns?”, “I thought they were quite ap-peal-ing”. But at other moments, like when Henry and his accomplice Alfred (Justin Edwards) cross the channel and a seagull begins to caw in a French accent, are more than enough to make up for it. And unlike many an adaptation of a classic film, The Lavender Hill Mob is almost entirely free of sexist comedy. The only real targets of ridicule are the French, and in a time of such geopolitical tension, it is nice to return to a petty vintage rivalry.
Photo Credit: Hugo Glendinning
Jupp and Edwards are perfectly placed to revive this particular brand of British comedy. Jupp’s full-fat southern English accent is eccentric and silly without becoming villainous. There aren’t many actors who could make sentences like “Soho: where the fashionable get fashionably squiffy” with quite as much understated pizazz. Edwards totally embraces his character as Alfred, playing him as bumbling and British but without making him thick in the process. He doesn’t quite manage to balance his role-within-a-role as much as the rest of the cast, (he ditches his role as Ambassador in the Brazilian bar the first chance he gets), but the performance is no worse for it. If anything it speaks to how strong the rest of the ensemble is at switching characters at the drop of the hat. Tessa Churchard, John Dougall, Victoria Blunt, Tim Sutton and Aamira Challenger are all so cohesive that one could easily believe that they were an established troupe all on their own and that this production was lucky enough to scoop up and stick a couple of big-name comedy stars on top.
Choosing The Lavender Hill Mob to adapt is a bit of genius in itself, the plot is a winner no matter how you slice it. Even so, it takes a production like this to make the most of it. One that works to make the comedy theatrical, rather than wedging set-ups that work on film or paper onto the stage, and trusts its cast to bring every line and outlandish scenario to life. Sams has taken a classic that hasn’t seen much time in the sun in recent years and polished it to a high shine for modern audiences. Four stars.
Whispers from the Crowd: "I didn't enjoy it. The characterisations were too exagerated. I get that it has to be a bit exaggerated, but it gets to the point where it loses touch with reality."
"Bit clunky. I like Miles Jupp, but he was trying too hard. And I wanted to like it."
The Lavender Hill Mob will play at Theatre Royal in Glasgow until February 4th, before touring to Bath and Truro