Porridge

Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais
The Lowry, Salford
(2009)

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The Lowry now has a Christmas tradition of hosting stage adaptations of classic old British TV sitcoms, with past offerings including 'Allo 'Allo, Steptoe and Son and Dad's Army. This year, the Quays Theatre sees Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais's prison-based comedy Porridge, originally starring Ronnie Barker as serial offender Norman Stanley Fletcher and Richard Beckinsale as his young, naïve cellmate Lenny Godber.

This stage show, written by the original TV scriptwriters, combines the storylines from a few original episodes (one of which, the 1975 Christmas special, was repeated on BBC2 the day after the Lowry opening). After recreating the voiceover from the programme's credit sequence announcing Fletcher's sentence, we see young Godber arriving in the prison as a first-time offender sharing a cell with returning offender Fletcher. Gang boss Grout, who really runs the prison, wants Godber to throw his fight in the prison boxing tournament, prisoners sing carols loudly to cover up the noise of another prisoner trying to tunnel out and Christmas is cancelled in the prison after prison officer Mr Barraclough's bike is stolen, while Fletcher tries to keep the peace and wangle his way into the prison infirmary for Christmas.

Interestingly, instead of using the stage script to expand on the stories and characters from the half-hour sitcom, Clement and La Frenais have cut back on the dialogue in order to squeeze in more plotlines, making it a bit of a jumble of half-realised stories and gratuitous gags broken up by frequent scene changes. There are plenty of laughs in the script, but the characters, which were so strong in the TV series, are very thin and underdeveloped if you consider the script as a standalone play rather than a piece of nostalgic recreation.

The question has to be raised when putting on a production such as this about whether the actors should forget the original and create their own versions of the characters or recreate the characters from the TV series. This production opts for the latter, and so Mark Pearce is doing a passable impression of Ronnie Barker as Fletcher, Daniel West recreates Richard Beckinsale's Godber, Nicholas Lumley mimics Fulton Mackay's facial ticks as prison officer Mr Mackay and so on. While these impressions are well-observed and skilfully recreated, they are just copies of someone else's timing and delivery and inevitably not as natural or subtle as the originals. Gavin McAlinden's production has a few lulls, especially where the script tries to have serious moments, and there are a few parts that aren't worked through properly.

The set, designed by Paul Wills, uses green-painted brick and steel doors, girders and gantries to create the same prison appearance as in the TV series and works well. Scene changes are covered by a combination of period (1970s) music and songs that mention prison or obliquely refer to the action.

Overall it is entertaining and has plenty of laughs and you even get a free sachet of porridge on the way out courtesy of production sponsor Mornflake, but you have to consider whether you want to see people copying other actors' performances using cut-down scripts when you can buy the complete box set of all three series and Christmas specials in their original versions on DVD from Amazon for less than the price of a ticket.

Running to 16 January 2010

Reviewer: David Chadderton

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