BWW Review: THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT, Wyndham's Theatre
A 1950s Ealing comedy probably wouldn't be your first port of call when trying to think of a timely film to adapt for the stage, whilst also giving people an opportunity for a much-needed laugh. However, The Man in the White Suit has managed it in one perfect package. Sean Foley has adapted and directed this stage production, which has now opened on the West End following a short run at Theatre Royal Bath.
Sidney Stratton is undoubtedly a genius; a Lancashire lad with a first from Cambridge, a passion for chemistry, and an idealistic streak that could be the making of him - or his undoing. After overspending at Corland's mill and ruining his boss' sales pitch, Sidney is ignominiously sacked, but is so convinced that he can find the formula for an indestructible polymer that he goes to work incognito at a rival mill.
After a stroke of luck in landing a position in the lab, he makes his much-sought-after breakthrough and creates a material than never stains - but what he hasn't considered is the reaction of the capitalists and the trade unions.
It's rather refreshing to find a stage version of a film that hasn't been turned into a full-blown musical; Foley's own description of it as a "show" is far more apt, as it is partly a play with music and also something of a variety show in its overall feel. Its setting in a working class northern town in 1956 allows skiffle to be embraced, Charlie Fink providing a brilliant score and original skiffle style songs to accompany the action.
The story itself is strangely pertinent; the protagonist is out to create a sustainable fabric, meaning people would only need to buy one set of clothes, and Extinction Rebellion have set up camp just down the road in Trafalgar Square. There are also nods to current goings on in Westminster, with Sidney misguidedly assuming that in the future scientists' statements would be believed, and Sir John declaring Stratton an "enemy of the people". When trying to get Sidney to agree to their terms, Corland mentions that they "hold all the cards" - now, where have we heard that before?
The contemporary and serious themes are floating around, then, however this is still a comedy show at heart. It's incredibly tongue-in-cheek and draws on the slapstick influences of silent film, as well as having some excellent gags. The use of the Trimley town map (Michael Taylor's design, in the style of L.S. Lowry) to show the pursuit of Sidney is a particular favourite moment of mine - a simple but effective, and guaranteed to tickle some ribs.
It's a fantastic ensemble effort, with great support from in-house band Jimmy Rigton and the Lancashire Ramblers (Matthew Durkan, Oliver Kaderbhai, Elliott Rennie and Katherine Toy), as well as some scene-stealing efforts from Eugene McCoy. Rina Fatania and Sue Johnston make a great double act as Brenda and Mrs Watson, both missing the opportunities afforded to them during wartime - though they'd settle for a trip to Blackpool.
Kara Tointon is elegance personified as Daphne Birnley, but there's more to her than meets the eye - when Daphne gets the opportunity to be herself, Tointon is enjoyably goofy and shows a particular aptitude for physical comedy. Alongside the former Strictly champion, as the titular besuited man, Stephen Mangan at one point gamely takes on a dancing scene in a fairly confined space; the pair work incredibly well together, and their light-footed efforts are much appreciated by the audience.
With his charm and natural comic ability, he's the perfect choice to take on a role made famous by the equally versatile Alec Guinness.
In a world that feels like everything is doom and gloom, it's both a joy and a relief to be able to escape into a fun-filled show such as this. Two hours of pure delight.
Picture credit: Nobby Clark