Writer/Director: Jeremy Sams
Based on the television series by: John Esmonde and Bob Larbey
Between 1975 and 1978 families across Britain settled down in front of the TV to enjoy the crazy life of Tom and Barbara, who’d given up the ‘rat race’ to live a happier, self-sufficient life in their Surbiton home. It was a time when the idea of doing “work you don’t like to buy things you don’t need” was a bit of a revelation, but going as far as growing veg and keeping chickens in the back garden meant you were a bit of crank.
With four brilliant central performances from actors who went on to have long-lasting TV careers, it became an audience favourite and a much-repeated BBC classic.
So it’s a bit of a surprise that this is the first stage reimagining, over 40 years later. It feels timely though. After many months away from the theatre, and with the industry needing to bounce back quickly, a big name, easy-going show is clearly a great way to get people buying tickets again. People want entertainment – comfortable, unchallenging entertainment. And that’s what you get with The Good Life. It’s funny and warm and feel-good.
The play takes snippets of story from the TV scripts and adds new material. At times the language feels a little too millennial (we didn’t say ‘yay!’ in the seventies, we said the much more uptight ‘hooray!’) and some of the new story content feels a bit out of kilter, but on the whole this new re-working holds together well.
The problem is there’s so much to live up to. It’s impossible not to compare performances with the original cast. You could believe that Richard Briers’ and Felicity Kendal’s Tom and Barbara were enough in love to give up everything and throw themselves into a whole new life. Rufus Hound’s and Sally Tatum’s couple lack that spark. Preeya Kalidas’s Margo just doesn’t have the gravitas of Penelope Keith who played her just the right side of unbearable. Straight impersonations wouldn’t be appropriate, but it’s the chemistry between these four characters that makes the whole thing work – and it just isn’t here. Dominic Rowan comes closest with an enjoyable performance as the long-suffering Jerry, a man who’s really just looking for a quiet life.
It’s very early in the run (and it looks like being a long one with a tour and then opening next year in the West End) so it’s likely a little more warmth might emerge with time.
Nigel Betts and Tessa Churchard double as all the other characters. Betts turns in hugely entertaining performances. His loud, golf-playing, hard-drinking ‘Sir’ (Jerry and Tom’s boss) is 1970s sitcom cliché gold, and he commands the stage in about six lines as Harry the (Brummie) pigman.
The Good Life looks the part. Although Michael Taylor’s constantly rotating set is a bit heavy and clunky, it does have an old-school stage comedy charm. Taylor’s 1970’s costumes – from Barbara’s chunky cardigans to Margo’s rather fabulous silk catsuit – work well to ground the action in a very specific time.
The Good Life is a slice of pure nostalgia – whether you were a fan of the TV series of not. Even as a stand-alone play it takes you back to another time. The days of regional rep when people got dressed up and bought a box of Orange Matchmakers, and drank gin and tonics in the interval, and had a right good night out.
Runs until: Saturday 30 October 2021