There are some committed comic performances in this new stage version of the classic 1951 Ealing comedy The Man in the White Suit, a cast of actors doing their best, only for their efforts to be smothered by Sean Foley’s overly broad production. It’s all so effortful and strained, stuffed to the brim with slapstick, fart jokes and people getting smacked in the knackers.
The plot adheres reasonably closely to that of the film. Sidney Stratton, the role played by Alec Guinness on screen, is a naive young chemist on a quest to invent an everlasting fibre that never stains. If he’s successful, no-one need ever buy new clothes again. It would be a boon for the working man, or so he believes. But his discovery is viewed as a threat to both his employers and the workers. They worry it will render them both obsolete.
Foley’s adaptation is frenzied and farcical without being particularly funny. Stephen Mangan is clearly working very hard in the role of Stratton. Incredibly hard. He deploys all the tools at his disposal. He makes the most of his not inconsiderable charm and skill as a physical comedian. 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.
Kara Tointon also impresses as Lancashire textile mill owner’s daughter Daphne Birnley. She plays this poised, business-minded young woman like an amalgam of Katharine Hepburn and a young Margaret Thatcher. She delivers every line with just the right mixture of vim and disdain. The former Strictly-winner also gets to show off her dancing prowess, effortlessly doing the splits and engaging in a seductive duet with Mangan, who also acquits himself well in this respect.
There’s quality support too. Sue Johnston, as Stratton’s laundress landlady, is a warm if underused presence; the always good value Rina Fatania adds to her growing roster of scene-stealing turns as mouthy mill worker Brenda.
It’s lavishly designed. Michael Taylor’s complex, rotating set, with its Lowry backdrop, morphs from factory to pub to stately home. The setting has been shifted to 1956 and former Noah and the Whale frontman Charlie Fink provides skiffle-style songs to accompany the action. There’s also one brilliant instance of stage illusion, when one of Stratton’s experiments goes awry.
But, none of this is enough to salvage the show. First made at a time when the UK was teetering on the cusp between austerity and prosperity, there’s a prescient quality to the film, with its focus on conserving resources, the little man pitted against Big Fabric. It wouldn’t have taken much to make it feel timely, but Foley’s production doesn’t trust the audience. It underlines each contemporary parallel heavily to make sure no one misses it. Hard as the cast works, and they work very hard, the whole thing feels laboured.