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Review: Three Men In A Boat by Jerome K Jerome, adapted by Craig Gilbert, Original Theatre Company, Theatre Royal, Bury, until September 12

11:55 09 September 2014

Alastair Whatley, Paul Westwood, Tom Hackney, in Three Men In A Boat at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds

Alastair Whatley, Paul Westwood, Tom Hackney, in Three Men In A Boat at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds

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There’s nothing quite like messing about in boats. Jerome K Jerome’s classic comic novel Three Men In A Boat is not only one of the great pieces of Edwardian literature it’s a wonderful celebration of those long summer days spent sculling about on the water.

Tom Hackney, Paul Westwood, Alastair Whatley in Three Men In A Boat at the Theatre Royal, Bury St EdmundsTom Hackney, Paul Westwood, Alastair Whatley in Three Men In A Boat at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds

Although, there are plenty of great ideas in this production by writer-director Craig Gilbert, the invention and imagination misfire when the source novel gets left on the riverbank.

The best laughs come from the Jerome K Jerome’s sense of his own self-importance. His pomposity is nicely brought to life by Original Theatre Company’s founder Alastair Whatley.

Gilbert has the brilliant idea of taking the action off the river and into The Snug of a nearby pub, The Elusive Pelican, where J and his two companions Harris (Original Theatre’s producer Tom Hackney) and George (Paul Westwood) endeavour to tell the assembled audience – who they believe to be members of the local geographical society – all about their adventures.

Along the way they rope in Nelly (Anna Westlake), the would-be entertainment for the evening, to provide piano accompaniment for their outlandish storytelling and to help along their spirited renditions of various Edwardian music hall songs.

This scene of bucolic splendour is helped by Victoria Spearing’s sumptuous set, full of period detail, and by Dan Scarlett’s atmospheric lighting which you soak up while waiting for the play to begin.

Unfortunately all this good work is swiftly undone when Craig Gilbert goes overboard on the physical comedy rather than concentrating on the dialogue. There are far too many prat-falls or aimless chases around the stage which do nothing to tell the story. It’s as if Gilbert has no faith in the comic potential of the book he has adapted.

On occasions Edwardian Britain is left behind and we get pun-heavy jokes about Scottish independence and the Irish band U2. It’s as if panto season has arrived early.

Some of the best moments come from Anna Westlake’s quietly underplayed Nelly as she turns to the audience and with a slight smile or inclination of the head signals that she is about to undermine these university-educated buffoons.

This production is hugely frustrating because it could be a standout show. There’s plenty of energy and imagination on display but for the slapstick to work it needs a lighter touch than this.

Andrew Clarke

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