BWW Review: THE KNOWLEDGE, Charing Cross Theatre
You still see them of course, though not as many as in the 80s and 90s. Blokes (almost always blokes) on mopeds, an A4 sheet under plastic clipped to their wind shield, looking around as much as watching the road - the lads doing The Knowledge. They are the cabbies of the future, learning the routes ("runs" in their argot) required to pass The Knowledge and obtain a coveted green badge.
Back in the 20th century, I always wondered whether it was really necessary or just a restrictive practice (cabbies seemed to be drawn from a very narrow sliver of London's deep social stratum) and now, with satnavs literally speaking the runs to anyone, it seems even less necessary. But (and there's always more to anything with roots as steeped in history as The Knowledge, stretching back to Cromwell), the acquisition of a green badge is as much about socialisation into a quasi-guild, with its standards, mores and culture, than it is about getting from Aldwych to Bermondsey.
With Uber cars and rickshaws clogging streets of London, the dreadful air quality of which will necessitate big changes in transport over the next 25 years, this production is timely. At a pivotal moment in London's transport and social history, Maureen Lipman directs Jack Rosenthal's 1979 television film The Knowledge, with Simon Block adapting her late husband's screenplay for the stage. What emerges is a play rooted in the late 70s (recognising the 70s branding on Marks and Spencer shopping bags jolted me with a Proustian rush of unbidden memory) but with much to say about life in 2017.
The narrative follows three men (and a woman, but not very closely) as they climb the cabbies' Everest, the 468 runs detailed in the "Blue Book" which, like the Empire, is actually coloured pink.
Chris (Fabian Frankel, playing earnest and slightly scared - like a cowed puppy) is doing it for Janet (Alice Felgate) who works in a factory but dreams of better things, and is probably Made In Dagenham in more senses than one. Gordon (James Alexandrou giving it the full cockney wideboy) can't stick at anything, not least his wife (back-combed fan of chicken in the basket, Celine Abrahams). Ted (Ben Caplan, radiating bravado to cover his low self-esteem) comes from a long line of Jewish cabbies and has Val (Jenny Augen) to support him and love him through thick and thin - and it does get pretty thin for them.
Lording it over them (literally so on Nicolai Hart-Hansen's pleasingly busy split-level set) is Mr Burgess, martinet, examiner and dispenser of the kind of tough love that makes or breaks men and women. Steven Pacey owes something to Nigel Hawthorne's 1979 portrayal and a bit to Inspector Blakey from "One The Buses" too, but, perhaps rightly knowing what we know in 2017 about the fragility of mental health, the bullying never gets too personal, the heart of gold not concealed for long. That may diminish the drama - when Chris says that he "really hated" Burgess, it's hard to see why a boy grown to a man under his guidance would say so - but, as was the case with Mr Mackay in Porridge, we have to feel some empathy with such villainous figures, the human (and humane) has to trump the monster.
Like many a cab journey these days, there are times when the pace flags a little - characters are brilliantly illustrated with a few words and by some wonderfully authentic costumes by Jonathan Lipman - and their results aren't too hard to divine, so there's room for a little more jeopardy to drive the drama, even at risk of losing Rosenthal's signature warmth.
Block's adaptation plays it straight - though there are plenty of laughs - with no sideways glances as a jibe at today's politicians or a reference to the Daily Mail is thrown in pantoishly, but the parallels with 2017 are clear. The Knowledge boys we meet start with grievances, in dead end jobs or none at all, railing against the hand fate has dealt them in the midst of one of the biggest and wealthiest cities in the world. They all need a hand up to find their feet and get it from old school relationships, old school teaching methods and old school motivations of cash on a Friday night.
The Knowledge is (increasingly, was) a ticket to a job for life, a circle of like-minded buddies and a foundation on which a family can be built. It is as far away from the gig economy, the zero hours contract and the three part-time minimum wage jobs that is the fate that lies in store for many young working-class men and women today, particularly in the post-industrial northern cities.
If our politicians blithely allow the blind, cruel hand of the market to structure our workplaces, we'll all be paying Uber drivers to take us to £7.50 per hour jobs as we cough and splutter in stalled traffic. And we'll wonder why such people can be so easily seduced by the false political promises of cunning populist demagogues. We shouldn't be surprised really.
Photo Scott Rylander.