fri 15/11/2019

The Man in the White Suit, Wyndham's Theatre review - sparks but no combustion in this chemistry farce | reviews, news & interviews

The Man in the White Suit, Wyndham's Theatre review - sparks but no combustion in this chemistry farce

The Man in the White Suit, Wyndham's Theatre review - sparks but no combustion in this chemistry farce

An Ealing comedy film becomes an intermittently entertaining play

Clothes make the man: Sidney Stratton (Stephen Mangan) reveals his impervious threads Nobby Clark

A hit comedy about a textile scientist? It might sound unlikely, but Ealing Studios’ 1951 sci-fi satire, starring Alec Guinness, was one of the most popular films of the year in Britain. Now, Sean Foley hopes to repeat its success with his new West End stage version, which tweaks the formula to go big, broad and occasionally Brexit-referencing – with varying results.

Stephen Mangan, who also collaborated with Foley on the similarly goofy, high-energy Jeeves and Wooster: Perfect Nonsense, plays chemist Sidney Stratton, whose great invention is fabric that never gets dirty or wears out. But Sidney, fixated on the benefits for those who struggle to afford new clothes, doesn’t consider the other effects this might have on the textile industry or wider market – or, more immediately, the irate mill owners and workers in his Lancashire town.

Foley retains the 1950s setting, story and general ethos, while also lobbing in the odd contemporary gag. It creates a peculiar mixture: part pointed fable, part genuinely surreal farce, part creaky comedy of the type its West End neighbour Noises Off skewers so brilliantly (there are multiple instances here of trouser mishaps, not to mention cod-foreign accents, leaden puns and innuendos, and a farting science kit). But if Foley’s script lacks his protagonist’s flair for innovation, his production does have some inspired moments.The Man in the White Suit, Wyndham's TheatreMichael Taylor’s sumptuous design provides everything from a period pub to a stately home equipped with swords and a suit of armour, as well as some pleasing theatrical solutions to scenes involving a car ride and Sidney being chased through the streets by an angry mob; definite shades of Patrick Barlow’s take on The 39 Steps, or Simon Phillips’ on North by Northwest. Taylor’s beautiful rendering of the town nods to Lowry, and the pipes that twist their way up into the ceiling suggest Sidney’s mad scientist brain.  

Former Noah and the Whale frontman Charlie Fink supplies original songs that enjoyably evoke the era’s skiffle music, performed onstage by Jimmy Rigton (Matthew Durkan, pictured above, centre) and his band, who are rehearsing for a local talent night. As with One Man, Two Guvnors, the songs riff off elements of the story (like devoting a number to “chemistry”) and add vital texture to the production, with other cast members joining in too – and even adding a burst of clog dancing.

Mangan anchors this managed mayhem with panache, reminding audiences what an able physical comedian he is and making Sidney an interestingly hapless hero: the well-meaning scientist whose powers of observation rarely extend beyond the lab. He’s also caught between tribes, as a local boy who studied at Cambridge, and now doesn’t quite fit with either workers or bosses.

The Man in the White Suit, Wyndham's TheatreThough underused, Sue Johnston provides heart as Sidney’s laundress friend Mrs Watson, and Eugene McCoy’s interjecting butler gets one of the night’s biggest laughs, but the standout supporting turn comes from Kara Tointon as the industrialists daughter. Her movement and poses, reminiscent of Fifties fashion plates, are rivetingly mannered, and her plummy tones rather like Margaret Thatcher in her grander years. Choreographer Lizzi Gee also makes exceptional use of this Strictly Come Dancing winner’s abilities in a dizzyingly strange pas de deux with Mangan that blends seduction and slapstick (pictured above right).

When Foley’s production commits to the bizarre, as it does here, it’s a winner. Elsewhere, the audience gets too far ahead of the jokes, and the more serious points – how technological change sparks understandable fear in the workforce, but how we need new solutions in a world with dwindling resources (see: the Extinction Rebellion encampment in nearby Trafalgar Square) – need further development. Additionally, Rachel Cooke’s programme essay reflects on how women were liberated by working during the war, and again from elements of domestic drudgery by new inventions like electric cookers and washing machines, but, in the show itself, this gendered element is essentially confined to one passing comment from Mrs Watson.

Of course, what seemed like sci-fi originally is now almost a reality with innovations like hydrophobic clothes, while many will probably feel a (somewhat Brexit-adjacent) sense of nostalgia for this kind of old-fashioned, mill-focussed community, untroubled by global competition and cheap labour – as well as the maverick enthusiasm of British inventor Sidney, unfettered by health and safety concerns. That rather muddles Foley’s messaging, but will likely do the shows commercial appeal no harm. After all, this is best enjoyed as a genial romp, with fond remembrance of times past and the odd comic wink at the present.

@mkmswain

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