Skip to content

The Lavender Hill Mob

by on 15 November 2022

Ealing’s Finest

The Lavender Hill Mob

by T.E.B. Clarke adapted for the stage by Phil Porter

Tulchin Bartner and Weird Sisters Productions at Richmond Theatre until 19th November, then on tour until 18th February

Review by Andrew Lawston

Adapted from one of the most celebrated British films of all time, The Lavender Hill Mob has large shoes to fill.  And so, as self-confessed non-entity Henry Holland begins explaining to a visitor to his club in Rio, how he pulled off a record-breaking bullion robbery, Phil Porter’s witty and faithful script pulls the masterstroke of having the club’s patrons enact the story (which they have all heard dozens of times from Henry, we learn), rather than relying on a flashback structure which is more cinematic than theatrical.

Miles Jupp leads the cast as Henry Holland, jovial and avuncular, retelling his greatest triumph on New Year’s Eve 1949.  Jupp wisely does not attempt to imitate Sir Alec Guinness, but holds the audience’s attention throughout the performance, which moves along at a brisk lick thanks to the taut direction of Jeremy Sams, and a tight performance from a talented and energetic ensemble cast.

As Holland narrates his life in Lavender Hill, near Clapham Junction in South London, and his mundane life working at the Bank of England, his friends perform their parts with enthusiasm, whether using a drinks tray as the steering wheel for a car, or loading New Year’s gifts from a trolley as a substitute for the bullion itself.  Justin Edwards, the Ambassador, is denied a part at first, but is finally allowed to play Pendlebury, the artist whose foundry makes the criminal scheme possible.  Edwards and Jupp have fantastic chemistry that recalls Guinness and Stanley Holloway without ever trying to imitate them.

Guy Burgess plays Farrow, the visitor to the club who is hailed as a Hollywood director, inspiring the recreation of Holland’s story.  Although anxious to catch a flight with Henry Holland later that evening, Farrow becomes increasingly involved in the production, almost always playing detective roles.  As the story reaches its conclusion, he appears to be caught up in the moment, but turns serious in a moment when the fun is over.

Tim Sutton gets some great laughs as the gruff waiter Sammy, who also performs illusions when not involved in the retelling, and at key dramatic moments also provides incidental music from a keyboard at the back of the club.

Tessa Churchard as Lady Agnes and Victoria Blunt’s Audrey have great fun playing the Sid James and Alfie Bass roles of Wood and Fisher, mostly carrying ice buckets of “molten gold” across the stage, but as the second half gets underway and Wood and Fisher decide to stay in England to avoid suspicion, they swap roles at breakneck speed both in England, France, and back in their own characters at the club in Rio.  John Dougall as Sir Horace and Aamira Challenger’s Fernanda round out a fantastic ensemble.

Of course, despite the action nominally taking place in a members’ club, a great deal of dramatic licence is employed, with effective use of Mark Henderson’s lighting design to convey chase sequences, or vans full of glowing gold bullion.  Similarly, various elements of Francis O’Connor’s striking set are pushed around the stage, revolved, and finally slotted together as a spectacular recreation of the Eiffel Tower.

The flexibility offered by staging the story as a retelling makes for an entertaining opening act, as the caper is planned, and carried out, but the production really takes flight in the second half, as Holland and Pendlebury attempt to sell the stolen gold, and the plan begins to unravel.  Perhaps the greatest set-piece comes as the duo chase a coach of English schoolgirls from Paris to Calais, and attempt to board a ferry.  Tessa Churchard’s splenetic French taxi driver comes very close to stealing the show during these scenes.

The Lavender Hill Mob is a wonderful evening’s entertainment that follows its source material faithfully while providing plenty of its own top quality comedy material.  If there is a single problem, it’s that the ending seemed a little hesitant.  The source film has a famous ending, which I shan’t spoil here, but it’s fair to say that the opening scenes are played with the assumption that much of the audience knows what’s coming (and the audience’s polite laughter at certain lines indeed confirmed this assumption).  Essentially, it feels as though the production isn’t quite sure how to close the show, given that much of the audience will know it already, and most of the rest will have guessed in the opening minutes.  The idea might be heresy to fans of Ealing comedies, but I was left wondering whether they could just have changed the ending a little.

The lack of a strong punchline is hardly a serious problem, however, as the audience was quick to roar their approval within moments of the lights going down.

Andrew Lawston, November 2022

Photography by Hugo Glendinning

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: