Writer: Phil Porter
Director: Jeremy Sams
The recipe for a classic ‘heist’ comedy invokes a set of ingredients which may sound familiar: the first, is of course, is an outrageously eccentric stratagem, which is, at once, delightfully simplistic and meticulously planned. To this, is added a sprinkle of misfits: a group of unusual criminals, unexpectedly mixed together and with an eclectic selection of skills. A dash of action is added to the mix: the heist unfolds, often with varying degrees of success. The offering would not be complete, of course, without its secret sauce: a fatal mistake which ultimately brings the whole mission down. If that does indeed sound familiar, then perhaps The Lavender Hill Mob might not bring you to the edge of your seat, mouth agape in surprise, hands gripping the hand-rests in anticipation. But this is a play that is overtly and deliberately formulaic: it knows that its comic strength lies in its predictability, and it riffs on its own cliché. It is not an usual dish, but it is comfort food: a crowd pleaser, which people will come back to, time and time again, and for good reason.
So therefore, in order to stand out within the boundaries of its genre, The Lavender Hill Mob deploys its two main assets to good effect: its set and its cast. The first – the set design (overseen by Francis O’Connor) is, fittingly extravagant and extremely versatile. Initially, we find ourselves in a luxurious club in Rio de Janeiro, on New Year’s Eve, complete with opulent colonial-style decorations; these soon give way to a design inspired by the streets of London, with wall-mounted maps and vintage traffic lights. Police cars, get-away vehicles and taxis are improvised out of trolleys and chairs, and at one point a climbable replica of the Eiffel tower even appears. All the while, an angled screen in the background connects with the scenery – sometimes displaying a postcard, sometimes an interactive map. It’s a beautifully thought-through design, and serves as an effective springboard for the actors to weave their narrative.
Speaking of which, this is not a play lacking in star-studded talent: comedian Miles Jupp (A Very British Scandal) headlines as Holland, the heist’s unofficial ringleader, whilst Justin Edwards (The Thick of It, Veep) stars as Holland’s partner-in-crime, Pendlebury. Both more than justify their hype: Jupp is fantastic as a self-important, melodramatic bank-clerk-turned-heist-leader, and Edwards wonderfully conveys the comic uncertainty of a businessman making a foray into a daring robbery. Alongside them, a supremely talented cast assemble to spell out this entertaining narrative, rapidly switching roles and accents as they transition between different moments of the story. In fact, arguably it is this chorus of secondary characters who make this production as entertaining as it is, by flexibly switching into whichever comic role the narrative calls on them to perform. Particular mention should go to Audrey, played by Victoria Blunt, who dances elegantly between characters, flitting from a flirtatious waitress to a wizened old lady, to a sneaky thief, and back again.
Part of the reason why the actors are empowered to assume and shed roles like clothes (or disguises, if you will) is due to a key stylistic choice: to have the story unfurl as a ‘play within a play’. In the original film, Holland simply narrates his own story to a mysterious British visitor; here, the play diverges from its source material by having the different attendees at the club assemble to put on their own production. This meta-theatricality is an inspired twist by writer Phil Porter and director Jeremy Sams, because it gives creative licence back to its performers, who must perform for us on more levels than one, allowing them to really showcase their acting skills and comic ability. In fact, much of the comedy derives from moments of apparently improvised acting: the bar staff pull apart their venue to search for props, drag random attendees into the foray to play a new part, and interrupt their story at key moments to dive back into reality.
The Lavender Hill Mob, therefore, is nothing new plot-wise, especially if the audience is already familiar with the film. It is a predictable tale of a London bank clerk who invents a cunning plan to steal gold bullions from his own bank by melting them down into an apparently inconspicuous shape, and shipping them abroad. Predictably, things do not quite go to plan; communication breaks down and he must go on a wild goose-chase to recover his stolen goods. But this production knows that a successful homage to the original cannot, in itself, be original but must impress in other ways. So instead, it breathes new life into an old classic by entrusting the plot, direction, production and design to a team who understands the value of respecting their source material, whilst imbuing it with their own creativity.
Runs until 19 November 2022 and continues to tour