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Only Fools and Horses the Musical review at Theatre Royal Haymarket, London – ‘affectionate but flimsy’

Ryan Hutton and Tom Bennett in Only Fools and Horses the Musical. Photo: Johan Persson

Running for seven series in the 1980s and early 1990s (not to mention numerous Christmas specials), John Sullivan’s sitcom can reasonably lay claim to being one of the best-loved British TV programmes ever made, its popularity stretching well beyond these shores.

This new musical version, a collaborative effort between Sullivan’s son Jim and writer and actor Paul Whitehouse, feels like a labour of love. It’s drenched in affection for Peckham wide boy Derek “Del Boy” Trotter (Tom Bennett), his younger brother Rodney (Ryan Hutton, making an impressive professional debut) and their Grandad (played by Whitehouse).

It understands the enduring appeal of the show, located in Del Boy’s deep belief that the next scheme will be the one that finally makes them millionaires, while showing zero interest in evolving or updating the formula.

Caroline Jay Ranger’s production is both an exercise in nostalgia and a lament for a London lost, recreating a world populated by barrow boys and small-time villains – the denizens of the Nag’s Head pub.

It doesn’t really work as a musical, though. The songs include a couple of Chas and Dave numbers, as well as Sullivan’s own ear-worm theme song and some much-less-catchy numbers supplied by Whitehouse, but it all feels a bit cobbled together.

The plot is also as flimsy as a paper cocktail umbrella, much of it taken from the 1988 Christmas special in which Del Boy meets Raquel (Dianne Pilkington) through a dating agency and the episode in which Del Boy takes a beating from the Driscoll brothers on the eve of Rodney’s wedding to Cassandra (Pippa Duffy). But while on screen the audience had built a relationship with these characters over years and the pathos was earned, here that’s not the case.

Designer Liz Ascroft has immaculately recreated the interior of the Trotters’ flat in Nelson Mandela House. The iconic yellow Reliant Robin makes an inevitable cameo and there’s fan service aplenty with Trigger’s blue suit putting in an appearance along with that plummeting chandelier. And, yes, Del Boy ends up taking a tumble though the bar. Of course he does.

There’s a brief, weird bit when Trigger imagines a future Peckham populated by artisan bakers and hipster baristas, but it’s a one-note joke, never revisited. That aside, 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.

The charm of the cast goes a good way to salvaging things. Bennett miraculously manages to make David Jason’s verbal tics and malapropisms – all the “bon jours” and “mange touts” – his own, while layering on the charm and warmth. He’s really impressive in this regard, while Whitehouse, always good at playing old codgers, is an oddly affecting Grandad, with shades of his Fast Show character Unlucky Alf. Peter Baker’s Trigger is also very good value.

The result is a show that shouldn’t work and often doesn’t, but is enjoyable all the same.

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Flimsy but enjoyable musical version of the popular British sitcom