The Knowledge review – Maureen Lipman steers witty cabbie comedy

The Knowledge review – Maureen Lipman steers witty cabbie comedy

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Any adaptation has to add more to its source than it subtracts. While Simon Block’s stage version of the late Jack Rosenthal’s celebrated 1979 TV film expands on the domestic lives of its main characters, it still feels, even in this loving production by his wife, Maureen Lipman, like a respectful homage to a great original that really belongs on the screen.

In the age of satnavs, I’m not sure whether London cabbies still require the encyclopaedic knowledge of the urban maze that they once did. But the play takes us back to a time when aspiring drivers had to memorise every street within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross. The main focus is on the morose, jobless Chris, driven by his ambitious girlfriend, Janet, to become a cabbie. We also follow the fortunes of the high-flying Ted, who hails from a long line of Jewish taxi drivers, and Gordon, a cowboy handyman for whom exploring the London streets is largely a chance to rat on his wife. But the story’s most magnetic character is Burgess, the God-like examiner at the Public Carriage Office who holds the applicants’ futures in his hands.

Uxorious … Ben Caplan as Ted with Jenna Augen as Val in The Knowledge.



Wit and lightness … Ben Caplan as Ted with Jenna Augen as Val in The Knowledge. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

Steven Pacey conveys perfectly well the quirky obsessiveness of a man who rejoices in his power and tends his moustache as lovingly as the Japanese bonsai tree on his desk. It is a carefully studied performance but it cannot banish the memory of Nigel Hawthorne in the TV film, whose habit of biting off hard consonants hinted at the secret sadism of a man in the grip of an idée fixe. Fabien Frankel and Alice Felgate are good as the young couple, Chris and Janet, and a reminder of a time when, for those without a pad of their own, sex could be a hazardously furtive affair. Ben Caplan as the uxorious Ted and James Alexandrou as the errant Gordon are also inherently plausible.

The play retains the wit and lightness of Rosenthal’s writing. He has created, in Burgess, a character whom Ben Jonson would have recognised and we see how the dogged application process required of would-be cabbies damages home lives. Yet it feels perverse to adapt to the stage a work that depends on the visible presence of London’s labyrinthine streets and, in an age when the black-cab driver is no longer king, it has the aroma of a period piece.

  • At Charing Cross theatre, London, until 11 November. Box office: 0844-930 650.



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