It would be easy to think anyone taking this classic sitcom written by the great John Sullivan and adapting it for a stage musical had more front than Southend. But before you dismiss the idea out of hand, it’s worth knowing that Sullivan was already formulating ideas for a show before his untimely death in 2011. Now his son Jim, along with Paul Whitehouse who is also cast as Grandad, has taken up the baton and written a show that will satisfy die-hard fans, certainly in terms of the gag quota.
It’s hard to go wrong with the dialogue written by Sullivan senior and the rich cast of characters he created. And it’s all here; the catchphrases, the snappy one-liners and the pretentious mangled French of ducking and diving Del Boy (an excellent Tom Bennett).
Whitehouse and the younger Sullivan haven’t gone for a new plot but centre their story on the impending marriage of Del’s younger brother Rodney (a pitch perfect Ryan Hutton) to Cassandra (a sadly underused Pippa Duffy) and Del’s meeting with Raquel (Dianne Pilkington). But therein lies the problem; taking an episode of a TV series and stretching it to two hours plus for the stage means there are some scenes that feel like unconnected skits and padding; a spurious trip to Phantom of the Opera for Rodney and Cassandra so they can reference one of the TV show’s iconic visual gags involving a chandelier — even if you’ve failed to see the much-repeated clip of the TV show you still have to know that Phantom contains a scene with a chandelier. And a scene where Trigger uses a crystal ball to forsee the gentrification of Peckham from the show’s 1980s setting feels painfully shoehorned in.
While the script fair rattles along and scores highly on terms of laugh-out-loud moments, the show overall is let down by a score of fairly weak songs. Only the catchy title number, Del’s Bit of a Sort song in a dating agency and Dianne Pilkington bringing her musical theatre class to proceedings with the achingly poignant The Girl stick in the memory. And the new numbers are supplemented by the surprising addition of chart hits Lovely Day by Bill Withers and Simply Red’s Holding Back the Years.
It’s a tough call for any actor to take on a part so familiar to millions and while Bennett, Whitehouse and Hutton do an admirable job, playing them as unforced by still very recognisable, others, such as Jeff Nicholson as Boycie and Peter Baker as Trigger, go for full-on but not always successful impersonations of their television counterparts.
It’s good to have a show up West that taps into the best traditions of British humour, without a Trump reference in sight and only a brief passing nod to Brexit, and gives us some good old belly laughs. But like a bit of clobber out of the back of Del’s van, the detail doesn’t stand up to too much scrutiny.
Only Fools and Horses: the Musical is at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket and is currently booking until 31 August