Charing Cross Theatre Autumn 2017
Imagine a pretty good evening of TV sitcoms. We're not talking Fawlty Towers brilliance here, but B+ episodes of, say, Dad's Army, Are You Being Served and the like, entertaining enough to keep you from reaching for the remote.
That is sort of what The Knowledge is like.
The 1979 play by the much-admired Jack Rosenthal actually began life as a TV one-off comedy-drama, and is here adapted for the stage by Simon Black and directed by the widow Rosenthal (and member of the original cast) herself, Maureen Lipman.
The play is about The Knowledge, the encyclopedic familiarity with London geography and the shortest routes between any two points that is required of all London cab drivers, even in these GPS days, before they get their licenses.
The study and examination process takes years of driving around the city on motorbikes memorising every street, landmark and one-way system – one character in the play is considered a phenomenon for doing it in fourteen months – and a sizeable percentage wash out before completing the course.
The Knowledge follows a handful of applicants – an unemployed lad goaded on by his aspirational girlfriend, a smoothie and lady's man doing it just for a lark, a middle-aged Jewish man who's the black sheep of his family for not running his own business, a bright and pretty young woman looking to escape the glass ceiling and casual sexism of the office, and, for the men, their variously supportive or skeptical wives and lovers.
And you may have spotted one of the play's limitations in that list.
The necessary shorthand of TV writing forced Jack Rosenthal to make them all types more than individuals, and (with one exception I'll get to in a moment) none of the characters have much individuality or reality beyond their near-stereotypes (The Jewish couple come perilously close to unpleasant parody). Nor does the story go anyplace really unexpected or unpredictable.
The applicants waver between competition and bonding, while their women find themselves as abandoned as golf widows, and it requires no spoiler alert to say that those who deserve happy endings get them and those who don't don't.
This limitation may be more evident and more of a handicap on stage than it was on screen, audience expectations and standards being different in the theatre, and director Maureen Lipman can't guide her cast to endowing their characters with depth or roundness the script simply doesn't provide.
Fabian Frankel and Alice Felgate as the young couple come closest as their story's arc takes him from reluctant schoolboy to being more committed and determined than even she can handle.
The one exception to the general flatness of the characterisations is the examiner himself, imagined by Jack Rosenthal as affecting an endless string of eccentricities just to fight the boredom of his job, and played with comic gusto by Steven Pacey.
Come to The Knowledge with modest expectations and you will be modestly but satisfyingly entertained.
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Review - The Knowledge - Charing Cross Theatre 2017