Friday, 9 March 2018

Theatre Review: Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em (Richmond Theatre, and touring)

While not quite boasting the reputation of Fawlty Towers, Dad's Army  or Steptoe and Son, Raymond Allen's Some Mothers Do  'Ave  'Em  nonetheless remains among the most enduringly popular of '70s sitcoms, its combination of sharp writing and slapstick proving pretty timeless in its appeal. The travails of its disaster-prone, proud but oddly innocent protagonist Frank Spencer, whom the show follows through marriage to the patient, put-upon Betty, parenthood to daughter Jessica and sundry failed jobs and other mishaps, made for delightful comedy. A 2004 poll to find Britain's best sitcom placed the show at number 22, while a one-off 2016 reboot for Sport Relief (which reunited Michael Crawford and Michele Dotrice in their iconic roles, alongside Bradley Wiggins, ahem) was also warmly received.

Still, a theatre production based on the sitcom sounds like a rather risky prospect, not least because of the difficulty of replacing Crawford and Dotrice. Happily, this new production, which opened at Swindon's Wyvern Theatre two weeks ago and is at Richmond this week before touring to Bromley, Portsmouth, Crewe, Aberdeen, Eastbourne, Northampton, Dartford, Wolverhampton, Crawley, Tunbridge Wells, Plymouth, Ipswich, Harrogate, Hull, Darlington, Norwich, Leicester, and Southend,  is good fun, with lively peformances and a generous spirit that proves infectious, especially in the first half.

Written and directed by Guy Unsworth, the show doesn't attempt a quirky take on Allen's original material, as Kneehigh did - with mixed but interesting results - in their staging of Steptoe and Son a few years ago. Rather, the approach is straightforward and pretty reverent: a replication, essentially, not a reinterpretation. Focusing on Betty's attempts to tell Frank about her pregnancy, and the arrival at the house of a BBC crew to film Frank's magic act, the show amalgamates or adapts situations and lines from various episodes of the series, and while the late addition of some - fairly incoherent - extra plot is unnecessary, it does so quite effectively for the most part.

Joe Pasquale is a smart casting choice for Frank; with his unmistakable voice and physical comedy skills, he brings his own persona to the part rather than simply conjuring Crawford. Kitted out in beret and trench coat, he relishes the pratfalls and malapropisms, and has great audience rapport. Sarah Earnshaw also does well as Betty, bringing, as Dotrice did, a little undertow of poignancy to the character's combined love for and exasperation with her husband. As Betty's mother Mrs. Fisher, perpetually aghast at her son-in-law's mishaps, Susie Blake gets some of the evening's biggest laughs, and Moray Treadwell doubles effectively as her Scottish bank manager beau and a BBC interviewer. David Shaw-Parker as Father O'Hara and Chris Kiely as a cameraman and policeman complete the likeable cast.

The stunts, though well-timed, can't really rival the elaborately choreographed set-pieces of the TV seies, but Simon Higlett’s very  '70s design - complete with pictures of Bruce Forsyth, Engelbert Humperdinck and Jesus decorating the Spencer home - springs some fun surprises, most notably in the extended mayhem that concludes the first Act. A selection of pop songs of the period also brings energy to the evening, especially in a surreal late sequence that finds Pasquale and co. boogieing away to a medley comprising "Deliah," "Knock Three Times" and "Without You."

No-one's going to mistake Some Mothers Do  'Ave  'Em  for essential theatre, but the accomplished cast and Unsworth's affectionate approach make for an entertaining, retro evening. As our hapless hero might put it: "Mmmm. Nice!"

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