Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Review The Knowledge

In an era of satnavs and Uber, a classic comedy drama about black cab drivers in training passes the test for Peter Barker.  

The Knowledge
by Jack Rosenthal
Adapted for Stage By Simon Block

Be Lucky!

The Knowledge, for those without the knowledge, is the ordeal all would-be taxi drivers of London's iconic black cabs must undergo to earn the right to ply for hire on the city streets.

Those applying, known as Knowledge boys and girls, need to learn the 20,000 streets within a six miles' radius of Charing Cross and how these link together in what are called "runs".

In 1979 a tale of unemployed men and one women attempting The Knowledge caught the imagination of the British public in an enormously popular TV film written by the late Jack Rosenthal and directed by Bob Brooks.

Now The Knowledge has reached  Charing Cross Theatre in a stage adaptation by Simon Block, directed by Maureen Lipman who appeared in the original TV film 38 years ago and also happens to be the wife of writer Rosenthal.

The play's bones and flesh remain Rosenthal's work in a faithful adaptation. This does mean however it still retains a screenplay feel with a series of quick short scenes and a multiplicity of characters.

Nevertheless director Lipman keeps up the momentum and a nine-strong cast play out the trials and tribulations of the oddball applicants on Nicolai Hart-Hansen's two tier set.

The Public Carriage Office examiner's office, ever-present, perches on a central mezzanine while the domestic scenes roll out front of stage.

Above are London street signs -- Kennington Park Road, Brixton Road, Whitehall and a pair of traffic lights which signal the progress of the would-be cabbies.

The main focus is on taxi novice Chris (Fabien Frankel), goaded by his girlfriend Janet (Alice Felgate) into trying for his cabbie's green badge.

Ted (Ben Caplan), aided by wife Val (Jenna Augen) is also trying to join the ranks and live up to a tradition of passing The Knowledge and joining the family taxi driving dynasty.

Gordon (James Alexandrou) uses The Knowledge as an alibi to cheat on his long-suffering wife Brenda (Celine Abrahams) while Miss Staveley (Louise Callaghan) is the only woman applicant. 

The spectre hanging over all of them is the prospect of not succeeding and the embodiment of that is examiner Mr Burgess.

The monstrous Burgess is a classic comic creation, here captured by a stand-out Steven Pacey judging the applicants from his desk in Penton Street, N1.

What you get in the film which is missing from the stage are the streets of London in spite of a soundtrack with The Clash's London Calling, The Jam's Town Called Malice and Gerry Rafferty's Baker Street.

But on stage the wide ranging shots of London and the applicants investigating the intricate web of thoroughfares are a lack. For Rosenthal's original script was as much an affectionate look at the highways and byways of the capital as a dramatic glimpse into the training of cabbies.

A little later, Ian Drury and The Blockheads performed their own love song to London the Bus Driver's Prayer - "Our Father who art in Hendon, Harrow Road be thy name".

Rosenthal's earlier The Knowledge comes from a similar place. It is definitely and defiantly a piece of its time. Just as cabbies with The Knowledge retain a human flexibility and nous which cannot be replaced by technology,  so the script remains entertaining, very funny and humane and it's an amber/green light.

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