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The Good Life

by on 24 November 2021

How Green is My Plot?

The Good Life

by Jeremy Sams, based on the television series by John Esmonde and Bob Larbey

Fiery Angel at Richmond Theatre until 29th November, then tour continues until 4th December

Review by David Stephens

Working from home, learning new life-skills, growing one’s own produce, living more sustainably, escaping the monotony of the daily grind and discovering the joys of simple living instead.  In recent years, these one-time dreams and ambitions of the few have become a normal way of life for the many.  Well, for a spell at least.  Recent global events, including Covid-19 and concerns over rapid climate change, have forced the global community into positive and, it is hoped, lasting changes, in an attempt to improve the health of the planet and the physical and mental health of her inhabitants.  With this dawning social conscience, some have opted to change their diets, choosing to eat more plant-based products and, to further reduce CO2 emissions, have started growing their own vegetables, resulting in greater demand for allotments or homes with larger gardens.  Others have ditched their gas boilers and opted for those fuelled by sustainable sources, while some have upgraded to electric cars, and many have ditched their vehicles altogether, opting for greener travel instead.  To support their employees, and to reduce their own carbon footprint, many employers now allow their staff to work from home, encouraging a better work-life balance.  Whatever the change, our lives have all been impacted in some way and, for many, this has ignited the desire to take further steps towards a self-sufficient, sustainable and more holistic existence.  It could be argued, therefore, that the draw to that lifestyle is felt more widely than ever before and, thanks to technological advancement and a positive shift in corporate thinking, has never been more attainable.  But how many would be prepared to give it all up for a life of total self-sufficiency?

It was, therefore, with that extra level of interest that many of us were drawn to see The Good Life at Richmond Theatre.  Yes, of course we were all thoroughly looking forward to seeing how this staple of British comedy would transfer to the stage, but one was also intrigued to see whether the lifestyle choice of the disillusioned Tom and Barbara Good, which seemed so whacky when it first aired on our television screens back in 1975, still seemed as alien to us today. 

In the interest of full disclosure, it must be stated that this reviewer was a great fan of The Good Life back in the day.  Who wasn’t?  Before satellite TV, one didn’t have an awful lot of choice so, when the BBC produced its latest sit-com, virtually the entire nation would tune in to watch it.  The characters from these programmes were, therefore, incredibly well-known and ingrained in the memories of those of us who enjoyed our weekly fix … and the many repeats!  Too ingrained to allow one to forget these characterisations and to enjoy a staged adaptation, played out by other actors?  Well, that would depend on the skill and strength of all involved.  So one went along to find out!

As the curtain is raised, the audience are immediately taken on a hugely nostalgic journey back in time, and one cannot help but grin from ear to ear as the feast of well-sourced props and the perfectly detailed set is revealed.  Complete with hideous wall-paper, a pile of dusty encyclopaedias, drinks cabinet with contemporary bottles, an entertainment system and countless other props, we immediately find ourselves in the kitchen-diner of a typical 1970’s semi, owned, in this case, by Tom and Barbara Good (Rufus Hound and Sally Tatum).  As the action begins, we learn that it’s Tom’s 40th birthday and, as he sits in his nightwear, filled with dread at the thought of having to go to work at his mundane job as the designer of plastic toys found in cereal packets, his wife, Barbara, is trying desperately to cheer him up, with birthday cake for breakfast and the promise of something a little more fruity upstairs after work – his annual treat!  From their initial exchange we sense that neither are particularly content with the status quo and would embrace the idea of change but, as is so often the case, their stability promotes the monotony. 

With the arrival of their next-door neighbour and Tom’s colleague, Jerry Leadbetter (Dominic Rowan), an enthusiastic acolyte of the corporate church, Tom is urged to get himself ready for another day at the drawing office and off they head in Jerry’s new Volvo. 

On his return home that evening, an excited Tom proceeds to inform Barbara of his eventful day.  Barbara, sat at the kitchen table listening intently, focusses her attention on her husband throughout the following action, enforcing the fact that the audience alone are witnessing what is to come.  As an immediately recognisable office strip-light descends from above, we are now witnessing the events of the day, first hand.  We learn that Tom has been ridiculed by his colleagues for being too old to play cricket for the company’s team at the weekend and then made to feel completely devalued by his boss, ‘Sir’, who barely even acknowledges the existence of….  “Erm…What’s your name? ….  Quite right!”  As he recounts each event, the characters from each memory join him on stage and the memory is enacted for the audience to witness.  As the lights change again, we are then back in their kitchen, where Tom announces that he has had enough of his professional life and has resigned from his job.  When Barbara informs him that she has been having similar thoughts and has even borrowed a book which teaches people to live self-sufficiently, they both agree to leave their old life behind them and to embark on their ‘good life’!

What follows is two hours of riotous fun and laughter, during which the stage cleverly revolves between the contrasting homes of the Goods and the Leadbetter’s.  We are introduced to Jerry’s wife, Margot (Preeya Kalidas), who is highly disapproving of their neighbours dragging the reputation of The Avenue down with their peasant-like behaviour, not least because of the smell and noise from the menagerie of farm animals that are now kept next-door!

Through the wonder of animatronics and puppetry, we are introduced to two of these animals.  At one point, the stage revolves to reveal Barbara milking a full sized goat, named Geraldine, in their kitchen.  Her life-like actions and noises were absolutely exceptional and the delight and enjoyment among the audience was audible.  The moment Geraldine deposits some, ahem, small brown pellets on stage, brought the house down with laughter and applause.   Geraldine also makes a surprise appearance at Margot’s dinner party, bringing the curtain down on Act One with a bang and potentially ruining Margot’s chances of landing the lead role in The Kingston Player’s forthcoming production of The Sound of Music.

Act Two opens with the aftermath of Margot’s electrifying dinner party and we soon learn that, due to some much needed house repairs, she and Jerry have now been forced to move in with their noisy neighbours.  This gives rise to some hilarious antics and an unexpected collaboration between the two couples when the Good’s sow gives birth to a litter of piglets … one in need of urgent veterinary attention.  

The play is written superbly well and the actors were all brilliantly cast in their roles.  It would be all too easy to fall into the trap of trying to replicate each of the well know characters from the television series.  This has often been attempted with other such adaptations and usually fails dreadfully.  However, in The Good Life, each of the four main actors has succeeded in reinventing their characters and each excelled in their portrayal.  Special mention to Nigel Betts (Sir aka Andrew Furguson, Harry the Pigman, Policeman and Dr Joe) and Tessa Churchard (Felicity Furguson, Milkwoman and Mary the receptionist) who, between them, play seven characters, each with a clear and distinct accent and persona and who’s energy help to drive the play forward at an exhilarating pace. 

So, as a longstanding fan of The Good Life, did it meet the very high standards set by the television series?  Well as it happens, it really didn’t need to.  It is so brilliantly written, adapted, performed, produced and directed that it can proudly stand as a tremendous creation in its own right.  It is a must see.  A truly splendid night at the theatre and highly recommended.

David Stephens, November 2021

Photography by Dan Tsantilis

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