Book, Lyrics and Music: Paul Whitehouse and Jim Sullivan
Director: Caroline Jay Ranger
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
For over twenty years, through sixty-four episodes across seven series and countless Christmas specials, Only Fools and Horsesaudiences watched Derek “Del Boy” Trotter selling knock-off goods that promised the world, but were ultimately a let-down.
There is a new musical of Only Fools and Horses in the West End. Which means that you too can relive that same experience of receiving goods from Trotters Independent Traders.
Things do start off well. The central nucleus of the Trotter family – Del, approaching middle age, his younger brother by thirteen years, and their sedentary Grandad – are fertile ground around which to construct an evening’s worth of story. Del is a modern day Mrs Malaprop, misusing and abusing English and French with such gusto that every one of his lines is a delight.
Book writers Paul Whitehouse (who also appears as Grandad) and Jim Sullivan (son of series creator John, who started work on a musical version before his death in 2011) have plundered the scripts archive for their adaptation. The musical aligns the forthcoming marriage of younger Trotter Rodney (Ryan Hutton) to his posh fiancée Cassandra (Pippa Duffy) with Del Boy’s connection, via computer dating, to aspiring actress Raquel (Dianne Pilkington).
Along with these key strands, several other plot points from the series are included to show off Sullivan’s large and rich array of supporting characters. It is an ensemble more well-defined than most plays could even dream of, even if one were ignorant of the 22 years of television from which they have been ripped.
Part of the trouble, though, is all the actors have to be faithful not only to the musical’s script but to the portrayals of their televisual originators. Jeff Nicholson and Samantha Seager must not only play social climbers Boycie and Marlene but John Challis and Sue Holderness’s versions of Boycie and Marlene. Peter Baker must play Roger Lloyd Pack playing Trigger, and so on.
Perhaps it is the fact that the major characters must live within such constraints that Oscar Conlon-Morrey, as a succession of over-the-top one-scene characters, manages to makes such an impact in his several, brief appearances.
But no matter how enjoyable it is to see scenes and stories from the TV mashed together on stage – and, for the most part, it is highly enjoyable – a great musical needs great songs. Sadly, this is one of Only Fools and Horses’ greatest shortcomings. While it’s only to be expected that the TV programme’s two theme tunes, ‘Only Fools and Horses’ and ‘Hooky Street’ (originally composed by John Sullivan) would make an appearance, they are combined into a single song which forms the best number of Act I.
Elsewhere, John’s son Jim and Whitehouse struggle to come up with numbers that have any chance of sticking around. Indeed, the ones with the most recognisability factor are from third parties: Chas and Dave numbers ‘That’s What I Like’ and ‘Margate’ show up the original material, and give a hinterland at what might have been had both Sullivan senior and Chas Hodges, who passed away last year, been around to develop this project to completion.
Even more incongruous from a musical theatre perspective are the inclusion of songs from the likes of Bill Withers and Simply Red. If one were not familiar with their usage in the original television series (such as the inclusion of ‘Holding Back the Years’ in the 1989 episode Little Problems, whose money-lending plot features in a faltering Act II) their inclusion would simply seem odd — although not quite as bizarre as a sequence in which Trigger becomes an eerily prescient fortune teller and predicts that 2019 Peckham will be overrun by artisan bakeries and coffee shops.
All in all, Act II is a mess. Storylines that should be important, such as Rodney’s wedding, occur offstage, and when Pilkington expresses Raquel’s desire to be a West End musical star, director and choreographer Caroline Jay Ranger has her seated throughout, with only a few background characters performing the sort of song and dance of which Pilkington is so capable.
And then the book just peters out, ending in a reprise of the title theme tune and an appearance of the trademark yellow three-wheeler. But while Bennett and Hutton embody their characters of Del Boy and Rodney with a depth that can almost encourage one to forget David Jason and Nicholas Lyndhurst, one doesn’t really yearn for them to stay around much longer.
And so, just like Del Boy packing up his market pitch when he notices DCI Slater approaching, Only Fools and Horses is on its heels before we notice that this shiny new musical, as enjoyable as it is, it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Reviewed on 19 February 2019 | Image: Johan Persson