Writer: Jack Rosenthal (Adapted by Simon Block)
Director: Maureen Lipman
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
The black cab is an iconic London landmark every bit as recognisable as Buckingham Palace or St Paul’s Cathedral, and its drivers carry a hard-earned encyclopaedic understanding of the city’s 15,000 central streets as well as the various suburbs. The long process of obtaining ‘The Knowledge’ was dramatized in the late Jack Rosenthal’s 1979 film of the same name which Simon Block has now adapted for the stage, directed by Rosenthal’s wife Maureen Lipman.
At the start of the play, a small group of hopefuls sit expectantly outside the office of Mr Burgess, the man who over the next year or two will be their examiner as they learn The Knowledge in the hope of earning the coveted green badge.
Nervous young man Chris has been sent there by his pushy girlfriend Janet, Ted wants to take his place among a family of cab drivers, while Gordon thinks it’ll be a good cover for cheating on his wife Brenda. As it begins to consume their lives, domestic dramas take a back seat, but not all of them will make it to the end.
Block’s adaptation is a reasonably faithful adaptation of Rosenthal’s original script, it’s tone paying homage to the light comedy films and sitcoms of the late 1960s and 1970s. What it lacks in dimension, particularly among the central wannabe-cabbies, it makes up for in some very nicely crafted character roles surrounding them. Best among them is a show-stealing performance from Steven Pacey as Mr Burgess whose officious manner and increasingly ludicrous attempts to put the candidates off are among the funniest moments.
Given our more modern expectations of gender equality, Block has expanded the female roles and the pressure The Knowledge exerts on their relationships. Celine Abrahams gives a lively performance as frustrated wife Brenda, standing strong against her philandering husband while seeking every opportunity to better her situation. Jenna Augen’s Val is, by contrast, a supportive and loving wife with a very happy family, who makes an enjoyable double-act with Ben Caplan’s eager Ted whose story the audience invests in most easily.
The decision to have Burgess on stage throughout sitting at his desk in a mezzanine office is a good one, emphasising the central idea that The Knowledge overshadows all their lives, and this becomes increasingly apparent as the story unfolds. Although Director Lipman keeps the evening moving swiftly, slightly overlapping scenes to keep pace, and utilising Nicolai Hart-Hansen’s stunning two-tier set, there is a lack of engagement with the principle characters that drains the play of some of its momentum.
Both the sweetly inept Chris (Fabian Frankel) who must overcome his doubts, and the boorish Gordon (James Alexandrou), a hard-drinking, easily riled lunk have little development, and the audience isn’t given enough reason to care about their fate early on. Similarly, Alice Felgate’s Janet shouts her way through much of the play without any real insight into what she’s so angry about. While there is also the female trainee Miss Staveley (Louise Callagnan) in the ranks, she has little to do but smoke suggestively and make slightly laboured points about sexual discrimination and feels like a missed opportunity to make more of her character.
As the text was written in 1979 and this version is still set then, there is the odd moment of casual racism and sexism that may amuse or offend depending on your generation. It may not be laugh-out-loud hilarious or manage the tragicomedy that Alan Ayckbourn does so well, but The Knowledge is an enjoyable enough night at the theatre with a worthy central message about achieving anything if you put your mind to it. Clearly, London’s 25,000 black cab drivers did just that, and one of them may tell you all about it as they drive you home.
Runs until 10 November 2017 | Image: Scott Rylander