Ealing comedies – the classic funny films produced by Ealing Studios in the late 1940s and early 1950s – have a history of sliding from screen to stage. The Ladykillers and Whisky Galore have been turned into plays, and there’s talk that Kind Hearts and Coronets will be as well, courtesy of a Stephen Fry adaptation.
Now, though, it’s the turn of The Man in the White Suit. Released in 1951, and nominated for an Oscar for best writing, the original sees Sidney Stratton – played by a young Alec Guinness – invent an everlasting fabric, then fall foul of textile manufacturers and trade unions, who don’t want his secret to get out.
This new stage adaptation is written and directed by two-time Olivier award-winner Sean Foley (soon to take up the reins as artistic director of Birmingham Rep), stars comedian and actor Stephen Mangan (familiar from his screen role in the TV sitcom Episodes), and features songs by Charlie Fink (best known as the frontman of Noah and the Whale). It runs at Wyndham’s in the West End until mid-January.
But can Foley find the funny in this 1950s film? Does Mangan make the most of the mayhem? Do the critics cry with laughter at this classic Ealing comedy?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
The original film The Man In The White Suit was actually based on a play – The Flower Within the Bud, by Roger MacDougall, who then collaborated on the subsequent screenplay with director Alexander Mackendrick. But does it fare as well back on stage, nearly 70 years after its cinema release?
“While the story follows the Alexander Mackendrick movie,” writes Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★), “the tone could hardly be more different. Within the first few minutes we have exploding apparatus, fart jokes and a skiffle number.”
“A shrewd, surprisingly tender and Academy award-nominated satire on technology, inventions and social good vs commercial greed has been turned into a wearingly overplayed farce,” laments David Benedict (Variety), and most critics are quick to agree.
For Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★), it’s “a broad, badly timed slapstick comedy” that’s “effortful where it needs to be effortless”, while for Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★) it’s “dramatically threadbare” and for Nick Curtis (Evening Standard, ★★★) the script just “isn’t sharp enough”.
The script is “as thin as Lowry’s matchstick men” agrees Clive Davis (Times, ★), while both Chris Waywell (Time Out, ★★) and Natasha Tripney (The Stage, ★★★) think there’s more to be mined from the source material.
For Waywell, to play “a story about how capitalism condemns every link of its food chain to co-dependency” for laughs is “out of touch”, while Tripney observes that “it wouldn’t have taken much to make it feel timely” but Foley just “doesn’t trust the audience”.
The warmest praise The Man in the White Suit can get is from Marianka Swain (ArtsDesk, ★★★), who calls it “genial but muddled”. Most critics agree with John Nathan (Metro, ★★). This is a show that “only fleetingly rises above the level of mildly amusing”.
Foley has form with adapting Ealing comedies for the stage. In 2012, his production of The Ladykillers was a certified smash-hit, and earned him an Olivier award for best direction. Does he manage to make a similar success of The Man in the White Suit?
Well, if his script and slapstick style aren’t exactly appreciated, then there’s at least a little love for the level of invention in his staging, with Michael Taylor’s design particularly praised. The show is “full of quirky touches”, extols Curtis, while Mark Shenton (London Theatre, ★★) admires Taylor’s “sumptuously and effortlessly moving” set. Most critics concur, though: that’s just not enough.
“Foley’s production and Michael Taylor’s design also brim with invention,” describes Billington. “A car suddenly materialises like an unfolding bed, the boss’ baronial mansion is filled with sword fights, miniaturised figures engage in a chase across a Lowryesque landscape.”
“It is all hectically and boisterously theatrical but what I missed was the movie’s quietly satirical portrait of a sclerotic society,” he concludes, and Tripney agrees. It’s “lavishly designed”, she observes, and there’s “one brilliant instance of stage illusion”, but “none of this is enough to salvage the show”.
“The only aspect of the production that truly captures the sweet eccentricity at the heart of Ealing comedies is Taylor’s set,” comments Crompton. But “it’s always a bad sign when you walk out of a so-called comedy praising the sets.”
Stephen Mangan might have made himself a household name through his appearances in Episodes, but he has plenty of pedigree on stage. He received a Tony nomination in 2009 for his performance in Matthew Warchus’ revival of The Norman Conquests, and has subsequently garnered acclaim for roles in the Wodehouse comedy Perfect Nonsense and the Pinter play The Birthday Party.
He’s lauded again here, mostly. He’s “toothlessly engaging” and “tirelessly energetic” according to Billington, has “considerable charm” and a “sweet invincibility” according to Shenton, and has “just the right air of single-minded concentration, scatter-brained abstraction and casual oafishness” according to Cavendish.
“Mangan works hard in the role of Stratton,” says Tripney. “Incredibly hard. He deploys all the tools at his disposal. He makes the most of his not inconsiderable charm and skill as a physical performer. He walks into doors and does funny voices; he’s dangled above the stage on a harness; his trousers keep getting blown off in explosions.”
Only Davis has a bad word to say about him. “Mangan, likeable though he is, simply doesn’t have the presence or the passion to carry the load,” he sighs. “A safe pair of hands in many a TV programme, he’s proficient but oddly anonymous in the role of the idealistic Sidney.”
Elsewhere, Strictly Come Dancing winner Kara Tointon is applauded for both her performance and her pas-de-deux – she’s “rivetingly mannered”, says Swain – but the squandering of soap opera star Sue Johnston’s talents is mourned. She is, Davis says, “totally wasted in an anonymous, salt-of-the-earth supporting role.”
Not really, no. A few three-star reviews, several two-star ratings, and a clanging one-star write-up in the Times suggest that this show is a slight stumble, if not a full-on flop.
Mangan works hard to help proceedings along and Taylor’s set gives the critics something to smile at, but Foley’s script just isn’t up to scratch. It stuffs the story full of fart jokes and skiffle songs, and turns a much-loved movie into silly slapstick.