Monday, 23 November 2009

Porridge Review Shaun Williamson Devonshire Park Theatre Eastbourne

Devonshire Park Theatre
23-28 November 2009
(show seen 23/11)

Fletcher - Shaun Williamson
Godber - Daniel West
Mackay - Nicholas Lumley
Barrowclough - John Conroy
Grout - Peter Alexander
Blanco - Richard Tate
Ingrid - Claire Andreadis
Jessell - Jon De Ville
Prisoner - Michael Ellis
Prison Visitor - Ambrosine Falck
Warren - Haydn Oakley
Ives - Mark Pearce
Prison Officer - Richard Saade
Crusher - Matt Weyland
Mclaren - Ryan Winston

Porridge with Shaun WilliamsonThe reproduction of iconic TV series on the stage seems to be the "in thing" at the moment. Recently we've had Dinnerladies and Last Of The Summer Wine, now the iconic prison comedy written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais gets its turn.

I am sure many of the large audience were, like me, very familiar with every episode of the TV series. I'm one of those people who has seen Porridge so many times I know the script coming long before the lines actually arrive.

The stage show is a direct lift of a series of scenes from different episodes of Porridge. The same dialogue and one-liners being linked together by a small amount of new material. Somewhat surprisingly perhaps it works very well. If somebody sat and watched this show who had never seen Porridge I don't think they would be aware it is a sort of "hashed together" production.

But most people sitting in the theatre would have seen Porridge at some point and would therefore be looking at how well the cast can reacreate the characters they have become so familiar with.

To be honest my verdict is a bit mixed on this front.

Singer, actor and after-dinner-speaker Shaun Williamson is given the somewhat formidable task of playing "Fletch" the role so superbly played by the late, great Ronnie Barker. Personally I think he was the perfect casting to play the lovable rogue. Shaun had clearly studied Barker's method of performance and mannerisms but stops short of trying to do a direct impersonation, this is more than enough for an excellent delivery of the script and a superb comedy performance.

However, there are certain characters for whom there was no choice but to try to 100% replicate accents and somewhat exaggerated mannerisms because this is what any Porridge fan would be looking for.

Many excel in delivery, others are more than sufficient, some don't quite hit the spot, some are completely different and one major character is missing completely.

I'll cover the latter first. No Lukewarm? What a strange decision that was to leave the oh so camp gay out of the show. Christopher Biggins was such a permanent feature in the programme he seems a strange character to miss out.

Some who excel in their impersonations of the TV cast are

1. Nicholas Lumley (Mr Mackay). From talking to him I know how much work Nick put into studying the performances of the late, Fulton Mackay. His perseverance pays off in abundance. It would be difficult for anybody to deliver not just the convincing Scottish accent but also those distinctive looks (or is that glares?), the walk, the raised eyebrows and every other distinctive trait which Mackay was known for. Nick Lumley was a superb casting for this show.
2. Fletch's cellmate, Godber, is played by Daniel West. Played well too. Not only does he sound incredibly like the late Richard Beckinsale's character he also looks uncannily very like him too.
3. On to Warren played by Haydn Oakley. Sam Kelly played the incredibly dim, but hilarious, Warren in the show. He is one of those characters you would think would be so hard to do justice to on stage. Well Haydn's resemblance to Warren is utterly amazing. So good he could have been cloned from the original.
4. David Jason played Blanco on TV and Richard Tate (who was previously in Dad's Army at the Devonshire Park) has to fill his shoes on stage. Again another perfect casting for this show with Richard doing the character proud.
5. Claire Andreadis (who again was not so long ago at the Devonshire in the role of Mimi in 'allo 'allo) played Ingrid, Fletch's slightly dippy, bimboish daughter. Again another fits-like-a-glove role.
6. McClaren - not an easy character to take on by any means - but Ryan Winston does a fine acting performance and has the accent spot-on too. He is yet another good lookalike in this production.

A couple were so nearly there:

Crusher (Grout's minder) is played by Matt Weyland who certainly looks the part as the hefty thug. Peter Alexander is almost there too as "top dog inmate" Harry Grout. Looks wise - excellent, mannerisms - excellent. I just felt something was lacking. Perhaps it was that in the TV Show Peter Vaughan was sort of sickly-nice-yet-oh-so-nasty? The nastyness just didn't quite come over.

A couple didn't hit the mark at all for me.

John Conroy's "Mr Barrowclough". I didn't think this was near enough to the weak, gullible prison warden we saw played on TV by Brian Wilde (who is also sadly no longer with us having passed away in 2008).

Ives: Now this is the oddest thing of all in this show. On TV Ives (Ken Jones) is a short, white, podgy, balding, regularly sick, middle aged-man who like many characters is slightly daft. Yet in this production Ives is a young black man in his 20's and the character of Ives seems to be completely different. Michael Ellis is fine with the material he has been given but it seems so strange that in a production which has taken so much care to reproduce an iconic TV show one character has been completely changed. My only guess at the reason for this may be that perhaps Michael is also understudy for Ryan Winston's character, Mclaren? This would at least make some sense.

However, a couple of quirks aside, this is a great show and it does do the TV series and all those actors who are sadly no longer with us justice.

The set is relatively simple yet at the same time very convincing. It recreates everything from the central prison area with the backdrop of cells, Fletch's cell, the courtyard and even the boxing ring in the gym. You don't need a lavish set to recreate what is, after all, the most bland place anybody is ever likely to be unfortunate to live in.

We thoroughly enjoyed this and I think the vast majority of the first night audience did too.

4 out of 5 for Porridge
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