The Good Life
Adapted by Jeremy Sams, based on the TV series by John Esmonde and Bob Larbey
For my first visit to The Lowry in quite some time, I was taken back to my childhood for this theatrical reincarnation of a show that only ran on British TV from 1975 to 1978 but which featured a quartet of some of the finest comedy acting talent of the time and is still thought of extremely fondly.
Adapter and director Jeremy Sams has kept the '70s setting and brought together a few of the original episode plots, some of which I remember, but it begins with the 'origin story'. Tom Good (Rufus Hound), on his 40th birthday, decides he wants to get out of the rat race—he designs plastic toys to be given away in breakfast cereals (probably not legal now)—and his wife, Barbara (Sally Tatum), comes to agree that they should give up their jobs, plough up the garden and make a bid for self-sufficiency. In Surbiton.
Tom's more ambitious manager, Jerry Leadbetter (Dominic Rowan), lives next door with his wife, Margot (Preeya Kalidas), who isn't able to put up with the smallest discomfort, has to control every situation and constantly worries about what the neighbours think.
Some of the storylines woven into the plot include Geraldine the goat getting loose at Margot's dinner party with Jerry's boss, the pig giving birth followed by a race to save the 'runt' after Barbara stops Tom from drowning it and Margot's obsession with getting the role of Maria in the local operatic society production of The Sound of Music.
While the situations may be familiar to fans of the show, the cast are certainly not trying to copy the original performers, which is fine, except these characterisations seem rather thin in comparison—which might seem an odd thing to say about sitcom characters, but the TV actors moulded them into rich characters with depth and warmth. This Tom and Barbara are believable enough individually, but we're missing that constant wry smile between them and mischievous glint in the eye they both had, especially when Margot was in the room, that bonded them as a loving couple. Margot puts across clearly her extreme snobbery, but no one seems cowed by her—not even Jerry that much—so there is little connection between the characters.
The main problem, though, is that it is all rather flat, with a plodding, unvarying pace. The ending of act I looks like a typical farce ending with the boss round for tea, marijuana slipped into the poppy seed cake and an escaped goat hiding in the kitchen, but it all just plods along leisurely and politely with very little incident until a flash goes off to make the audience jump before the act ends. In act II, we are told there was a fire and Margot and Jerry have the decorators in. Nobody on stage seems too bothered, so it's hard for the audience to really care.
The whole play takes place (apart from some slightly clunky flashbacks near the beginning) in the two houses of the Goods and the Leadbetters, on a set by Michael Taylor that changes between them smoothly and ingeniously with rotating walls. There is some effective puppetry to create Geraldine the goat, who produces bleats, milk and (of course) poo. Most other things about this show are rather old-fashioned, but in a tired rather than a quaint or nostalgic way.
The cast is completed by Nigel Betts and Tessa Churchard, who do a great job of playing every other character (Betts is the boss, the pigman, the policeman and the doctor; Churchard is the boss's wife, the milkwoman and the doctor's receptionist). Charlotte Bloomsbury and Oliver Hewett are also mentioned in the cast on the single-sheet photocopied programme, but there is no indication there or on the production's web site what they do.
There are laughs in the show—I laughed a few times and heard plenty of chuckles from the rather small audience on opening night, most I think even older than me—but, given the potential of the script and the talent on stage, this feels like a show that should be a lot better than it is.
Reviewer: David Chadderton