As a rule of thumb, when adapting something, changing the tone and/or style for the new medium is a wise move — so long as the rethink fits or improves the original. If only that were the case with this fitfully amusing but enervating stage adaptation of “The Man in the White Suit.”
Once a now-forgotten play, the property was made famous by the 1951 comedy from Ealing Studios, the most quintessentially English of production companies. But what was 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.
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It looked good on paper. Writer-director Sean Foley, one half of the duo who wrote and performed the 2001 success “The Play What I Wrote,” had a U.K. hit with a stage production of “The Ladykillers,” another 1950s Ealing comedy. That too was repointed towards physical comedy and farce, but that had a script by comedy scribe Graham Linehan. This time it’s Foley in the writer’s chair, and the results are painfully thin.
The basic plot remains intact. TV and stage favorite Stephen Mangan (“Episodes”) is Sidney Stratton, a largely gauche scientist boffin in a working-class northern mill town who dreams of creating a fabric that repels dirt and never wears out. It’ll be a boon for all concerned, symbolized by his washerwoman landlady (Sue Johnston) who will be able to give up her job and spend her time in the long-dreamed-of holiday resort of Blackpool.
After a series of hirings and firings and literally explosive mishaps (amusingly designed and staged), Stratton achieves his priceless goal. His joy is short-lived, however, since the manufacturers see both trouble ahead and a one-off opportunity of making pots of money for themselves while the production-line workers realize he’s putting them out of a job.
From the cliched opening scene of busy townsfolk milling about to little effect, a depressing degree of generalized predictability hovers over the staging, punctuated by clumsy exposition. “1956 is going to be my year!” cries ever-smiling, cheeky chappie Jimmie (Matthew Durkan), in case we hadn’t gathered the era from the clothes. Jimmie plays guitar and sings in a skiffle band that is wheeled on and off to provide plot-underlining, boisterous songs.
Aside from Mangan who, when allowed by the script, brings warmth and considerable ease to the puzzlingly inconsistent role of Sidney — he’s clumsy and unaware, except when he’s conveniently not — the characterization is noisily one-note. The plain-speaking landlady has a heart of gold, the bosses are either bullishly self-aggrandizing or devious, and Kara Tointon as the boss’s daughter is given so little to work with she merely delivers an attitude in a posh accent. Yet since Tointon won the BBC reality TV dance ratings sensation “Strictly Come Dancing,” Foley gives her a rhumba and salsa routine with Mangan which is ideally executed but almost entirely pointless.
Elsewhere, Foley encourages everyone to underline and overplay their defining characteristic. Amid the frantic result there is precious little listening among the cast but an enormous amount of shouting. Almost everyone bellows their lines at the audience as if louder and faster will prove funnier. What’s almost entirely absent — aside from within Michael Taylor’s amusingly complicated sets, which are filled with sight-gags — is any shred of wit.
The production’s real debt is not to the original film but to the transatlantic smash “One Man, Two Guvnors.” But that came with the winning advantages of a far sharper script and meticulous direction by Nicholas Hytner and Cal McCrystal. Comparisons may be invidious, but copying the former show’s device of a skiffle band actively invites them — and not to the current show’s advantage.