Three Men in a Boat

Jerome K Jerome, adapted for the stage by Craig Gilbert
The Original Theatre Company
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford

Alastair Whatley (J), Tom Hackney (Harris) and Christopher Brandon (George)

Jerome’s almost true story of the river trip taken by him and his two friends (“to say nothing of the dog”) was originally intended as a serious travel guide with accounts of local history along the route, but isn’t it always the things that go wrong on a holiday which make the best stories!

This was a trip typical of the period (1898) and the idea of taking to a “camping skiff” (basically a small rowing boat with a cover), rowing it up river from Kingston to Oxford and sleeping in it overnight appealed to the three city workers to escape the ‘stresses and strains’ of city life. They soon found completely different stresses and strains and ones they were ill-equipped to deal with, but Jerome’s writing overrides any serious aspects and his style of humour is still as funny now, over a hundred years later, as ever it was.

Gilbert has begun the play in a riverside pub, where Alastair Whately as ‘J’ (Jerome himself) is about give a talk to The Royal Geographical Society accompanied by appropriate music from pianist Nelly (Sue Appleby) but, of course, his irreverent friends interrupt and sabotage every attempt to be serious. Nelly is definitely not amused by the interruptions to her music but she is not above a trick or two herself.

The show continues in a mixture of music hall, knock-about comedy, and songs with a few travelogue-style descriptions of the areas visited thrown in—you get a lot for your money in this show—and these extremely talented performers attack the script with gusto and a great deal of energetic physical comedy. The three men, Harris (Tom Hackney), George (Christopher Brandon) and ‘J‘ also, expertly and very comically, take on the parts of the eccentric characters they meet along the way, taking advice from one who tells them that the river water is pure and clean and safe to drink so they enjoy a cup of tea, until the sight of a dog floating down the river “in a very relaxed manner” rather spoils the taste.

With—in George’s mind—their camping skills now honed to perfection, he felt justified in commenting “I don’t know how a woman with only one household manages to occupy her time”, a remark which brought howls of protest from the women.

Everything seems right for this show and there is a lot to enjoy. Victoria Spearing’s design for the inside of a typical cluttered and slightly shabby pub is spot-on, and the whole creative team (sound, light, movement etc) has done an excellent job. Jaws and High Noon make brief (and comical) appearances and there is a reference to Barclay’s Bank (“OOH—Topical”).

The actors are brilliant, working their socks off to give us a show to remember, yet somehow (for me) something is missing and I think I preferred the more subtle humour of the book where your own imagination can come into play. The story is more a series of anecdotes than a chronological account of the trip—not an easy one to stage—but they have done the very best job possible with so many different venues to take in.

However I could have been a minority of one in my opinion as, after three dark weeks on the Arnaud stage, the first production of the Autumn season was greeted with delight and the theatre was packed, the audience around me laughing uproariously at every antic and cheering wildly at the end. Join them—and enjoy!

Touring to Bristol, Eastbourne, Southend, Darlington, Poole, Chipping Norton, Peterborough, Worthing, Musselbrough, Berwick, St. Andrews, Basingstoke, Bracknell, Margate, Buxton, Loughborough, Uppingham, Lincoln, Croydon, Derby and Scarborough.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor

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