Writer: Jerome K Jerome
Director: Craig Gilbert
Reviewer: Nicole Evans
Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat tells the story of, well, three men in a boat actually. More specifically though, it tells the story of three friends, J, Harris and George and an imaginary dog who decide to embark on a boating holiday from Kingston to Oxford on a whim. With prior knowledge of the nature of the tale in mind, it is a little surprising to enter The Belgrade Theatre’s auditorium and see a full stage, very unmovable, Greene King Inn standing before us, and no boat in sight. A wooden chalkboard sign informs us that tonight’s entertainment will include a pianist by the name of Nelly and ‘The River Thames’ by Jerome K Jerome.
Before the lights dim, we meet Nelly, who shyly enters the Inn and appears delightfully aghast that she will be playing to such a large audience. Silently introducing herself, she takes her seat at the piano and begins to play. She is soon rudely interrupted by a rowdy chorus of ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’ and as the remaining three of our actors for the duration enter the stage we witness the first of many competitive interactions between the two of the inn’s billed acts, the majority of which Nelly smugly comes up trumps.
Addressing the audience as The National Geographical Society, Jerome begins with a somewhat dull guide to the River Thames landmarks but is soon persuaded, by way of his flashcards being strewn across the set by his pals, to instead relive the tale of the three’s adventures and misdemeanours of their eventful journey on the water, and a hilarious and demonstrative account of proceedings follows.
The decision to set the play in an inn proves to be a genius one. With a limited space that is packed full of props, slapstick scenes are a given, and the actors get a full workout in terms of needing to continuously impress, and impress they do. Setting the scene by moving a few items of furniture is all that is needed once combined with the expressive impressions of the four on stage. Alastair Whatley plays a charming Jerome K Jerome, perfecting the balance between the stiff upper lip solicitor’s clerk persona and the witty, all too easily persuaded to be comical, lad. Paul Westwood, as George, slips into character as a typical bachelor with ease and Tom Hackney as Harris is simply outstanding. All take on several characters as we meet them in the story, and less-than-convincing costume changes and dodgy accents become part of the fun. Star of the show, and the only one to not utter a word, is Anna Westlake as Nelly. Not featuring as part of the original story, including her as a brand new character throughout seemed an odd decision, but one that really, really works. Facial expressions shared with the audience, piano playing and comedy interactions with the rest of the cast make up the full content of her performance, but she succeeds in gaining our affections and provides a permanent anchor of audience involvement alongside a reminder of the unusual setting of the tale itself.
Craig Gilbert’s adaptation of Three Men in a Boat is almost as brilliant as the book itself. Creatively combining the comedy of the story with new interactions and a fresh way of telling the tale, he makes it impossible not to love. Jolly good show.
Photo: Jack Ladenburg | Runs until Saturday October 18th.