A new musical version of John Sullivan’s beloved British sitcom Only Fools and Horses? Written by Sullivan’s son Jim and celebrated comedian Paul Whitehouse? Featuring all the characters we know and love? Lovely jubbly!
Sullivan’s sitcom ran for seven seasons between 1981 and 1991, returning for sixteen specials up until 2003. This new musical adaptation is directed by Caroline Jay Ranger – who has also brought Fawlty Towers to the stage – and runs at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until August at least.
It stars Tom Bennett as Del Boy Trotter, debutant Ryan Hutton as his younger brother Rodney, Whitehouse as their Grandad, and features a host of the show’s cherished characters – Raquel, Cassandra, Trigger, Boycie, Marlene and more.
But is Only Fools and Horses the Musical going to make its creators all millionaires by this time next year? Or are they all just a bunch of plonkers? Do the critics find this stage adaptation Bonnet de Douche, or decidedly not?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
Sullivan junior and Whitehouse have created the show by collating material from the sitcom’s 64 episodes, and structuring it loosely around the plots of two – 1988’s Dates and 1989’s Little Problems.
For some critics, this cut-and-paste concept just doesn’t hold water. It’s “theatrically under-achieved” and “a bodge job” for Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★), “hardly revelatory” for Mark Shenton (LondonTheatre, ★★), and “an odd mix of the tried-and-tested and the new-and-half-cocked” for Dominic Maxwell (Times, ★★), while Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★) pines for “a bit more artistic adventure.”
“The show’s storyline is stretched so thinly here, it practically squeaks,” writes Tom Wicker (Time Out, ★★★). “The resulting experience is like a low-stakes drift through a Madame Tussauds exhibition and a greatest hits compilation.”
“It all feels a bit cobbled together,” adds Natasha Tripney (The Stage, ★★★). “No genuine attempt has been made to update things. This is particularly true of the female characters. Raquel and Cassandra are as underused as ever and car salesman Boycie’s infertility and his wife Marlene’s infidelity are still, uncomfortably, the butt of jokes.”
Other critics, though, can see something to like. Fiona Mountford (Evening Standard, ★★★★) calling it “loving, lively homage rather than empty imitation” and observing “ample helpings of wit, pluck, graft and family loyalty.”
“It’s not a well-crafted musical in the traditional sense, but then you’d expect a stage-life of the Peckham Trotters to be a bit rough-round-the-edges,” echoes Alun Hood (WhatsOnStage, ★★★). “It has heart, wit and warmth by the bucketload. If at times this feels like an extended sitcom episode with songs shoe-horned in, well, that is exactly what most of the fans will be here for.”
“No doubt there will be plenty of snobby theatre luvvies who’ll wince at the sight off a musical version of Only Fools in the West End,” reckons Stuart Pink (the Sun), but, he continues, the show “packs in as much fun as a beano to Margate while wearing a kiss me quick hat.”
The show’s music consists of the show’s theme tune, several jukebox tracks, and some original compositions by Sullivan, Whitehouse and the late Chas Hodges of Chas and Dave. Most critics reckon the score is nothing to shout about.
Some, in fact, can’t work out why songs are included at all, with Taylor opining that “there is something crucially missing, though, from this musical – and that’s any truly compelling reason why these characters have to burst into song.”
There’s certainly no mistaking this score for one of Stephen Sondheim’s,” he continues, while Maxwell calls the new compositions “at best, pleasant, at worst, plodding” and Cavendish writes that they “are in one King Lear and out the other, if you catch my cockney rhyming drift”.
They’re “so derivative that you think you’ve heard them before” according to Shenton, and “aren’t strong enough to justify stopping the comedy action” according to Hood.
There’s more criticism over the inclusion of pop hits as well, including Bill Withers’ Lovely Day and Simply Red’s Holding Back the Years. They’re “always worth a listen” according to Mark Lawson (Guardian, ★★★), but feel “as knock-off as the goods on Del Boy’s market stall” here.
The TV series famously featured David Jason and Nicholas Lyndhurst in the central roles of Del Boy and Rodney – two of the most iconic characters in British TV history. They’re inhabited here by Tom Bennett and Ryan Hutton, the latter making his professional debut.
Bennett, most critics agree, is excellent – he “aces Del’s mixture of absurdity and dignity” according to Maxwell, and “miraculously manages to make David Jason’s verbal tics and malapropisms – all the ‘bonjours’ and ‘mange touts’ – his own, while layering on the charm and warmth” according to Tripney.
“Bennett does more than just offer up an (admittedly uncanny) recreation of David Jason’s beloved original, capturing all the swagger, underhandedness, cheeky charm, vulnerability and strange campness that made Derek Trotter such compelling, if infuriating, company,” extols Hood. “This stage Del Boy also sings like a dream, banters winningly with the front stalls and then insouciantly goes into a top hat and cane routine like a Sarf London Fred Astaire. It’s a gorgeous performance.”
Hutton, meanwhile, impresses as Rodney. He’s “splendid” for Mountford, has an enjoyable “gormless aplomb” for Cavendish, and has the character’s “lugubrious drawl down to a tee” according to Hood.
There’s also praise elsewhere for Whitehouse’s Grandad – Wicker calls him “predictably pitch-perfect”, Tripney calls him “oddly affecting” – and for Peter Baker’s Trigger, who’s “amusingly lugubrious” according to Maxwell, “judiciously morose” according to Cavendish, and “joyfully gormless” according to Hood. “Casting was all,” remarks Adam Sweeting (Arts Desk, ★★★★), “and they got most of it right”.
Well, it’s not going to win any Olivier awards, but Only Fools and Horses the Musical does pretty much exactly what it says on the tin. It’s a great big nostalgia-fest, and the critics either like it or loathe it accordingly. Two-star, three-star, and a handful of four-star ratings are all available.
The story and script is basically one big concoction of the TV show’s most-loved moments and the scrapbook score is decidedly disappointing, but the performances are actually excellent, with Bennett slipping superbly into David Jason’s shoes as Del Boy.
Not quite Crème de la Menthe then, but cushty enough for fans.