Review: The Lavender Hill Mob, Richmond Theatre

Review: The Lavender Hill Mob, Richmond Theatre

“Expect a night of nostalgia and absurdity.” By Jenny Booth.


Never mind ‘thou shalt not steal’ – fantasies of getting rich quick have always had a seductive appeal, in real life and on screen. From the Great Train Robbery to The Italian Job, we relish a tale of daring crooks who make off with a fortune – and never more so than when Britain is in the grip of austerity. Take The Lavender Hill Mob, a 1951 Ealing comedy filmed when post-war rationing was still in force, which tells of a daring heist on a Bank of England bullion van, masterminded by a mild-mannered bank clerk hero who makes it to Rio with loot after a string of comic misadventures and a plodding police pursuit. The film portrays a comic stereotype of self-deprecating English eccentricity and ingenuity that still plays well at home and abroad. It’s easy to see why writer Phil Porter and director Jeremy Sams were attracted to turn the story into a stage play (which runs at Richmond Theatre this week).

Parts of their adaptation work brilliantly. Comedian and actor Miles Jupp, familiar from Mock The Week and innumerable Radio 4 shows, anchors the story with his portrayal of resourceful Henry Holland, the clerk turned criminal (played by Alec Guinness in the film), hovering on the edge of caricature without ever tipping over. Jupp’s radio collaborator Justin Edwards is great as Pendlebury, Holland’s partner in crime, and there are some fantastic cameos particularly from Victoria Blunt and Tessa Churchard in the supporting cast. But it’s an awkward story to adapt. The start and end of the film frame the plot by showing a Scotland Yard detective finally tracking Holland down in Rio and delivering his comeuppance. But on stage, what should be a light-touch framing device casts a pall over the whole action, as Porter has the detective, Farrow (Guy Burgess), on stage throughout; this slightly menacing presence leaves the audience constantly waiting for him to arrest Holland. Meanwhile, Holland’s posh English friends in Rio – including the British ambassador (also Edwards), captain of industry Sir Horace (John Dougall), and nightclub owner Fernanda (Aamira Challenger) – all bafflingly agree to act out Holland’s crime for Farrow’s benefit, mistakenly believing him to be a film director. The plot was always frothy and fantastic, but this strains the audience’s belief too far.

So there are flaws in the way the story is set up, but the show still offers plenty of entertainment. Blunt’s gleefully sadistic French ferry port official and Churchard’s truculent Parisian taxi driver attract some of the biggest laughs, playing off Jupp and Edwards’ portrayals of hapless Englishmen in Paris. Expect a night of nostalgia and absurdity.

Richmond Theatre, until 19 November

Image: Hugo Glendinning