Three Men and a Pianist Adrift in a Boat


adapted by Craig Gilbert from Jerome K Jerome

Arts Theatre, Cambridge – matinée 22 January 2015
J – David Partridge
George – Michael Rouse
Harris – Tom Hackney
Nelly – Anna Westlake

Director – Craig Gilbert
A co-production by The Original Theatre and The Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds

I tried, I promise. I really tried, but oh dear. What is it about Three Men in a Boat that inspires such terrible stage productions?

It didn’t start too well at the box office where, in addition to asking for my £20 stalls ticket, a further £2.50 ‘booking fee’ was demanded. Why? ‘To help keep the theatre going.’ I was then asked for my name and postcode. Why? If I was buying a bar of soap in Boots, you wouldn’t ask me for my name and address. ‘It’s just if anything went amiss with your booking.’ But it won’t, I responded. The show is going to start in five minutes. What could possibly go amiss?

In that somewhat grouchy frame of mind I took my seat and started to read the beautifully-produced full-colour programme. There was an essay therein entitled ‘Three Men in a Boat: The Story’. The first paragraph seemed to be familiar. It related how Miles Kington asked Basil Boothroyd how he wrote his hilarious pieces for Punch. I read on. It was an essay by me, originally commissioned by Reader’s Digest for the foreword to its edition of Three Men and subsequently adapted by me for the JKJ website. There it was, word for word, if slightly abridged, without any author’s name or acknowledgement. Well, I thought, I shall deal with that later. Put it to one side and enjoy the show. I underline this as it honestly did not affect my reaction to what I endured for the next two hours.

The set was rather good – the interior of The Elusive Pelican public house, Belvoir-Under-Sheet, Surrey. Date: 7.25pm, 10 July 1898. An attractive young lady in Victorian dress entered and began to play Clair de lune on the piano (it wasn’t published till 1905 – but never mind). We then had ten minutes of horse play as the three men interrupted the music and set about introducing themselves. Not a word of Jerome passed their lips until a mangled version of the first page of the book (where the three are discussing how ill they are) was delivered without any audible signs of enjoyment from the gathering of silver tops who packed half the stalls.

The first problem quickly became apparent. I don’t like to diss my fellow pros but really these three were not up to it. Only David Partridge, from the John Cleese school of shouty comic acting, seemed to know anything about manufacturing laughs out of nothing. Tom Hackney as Harris mugged and blustered enthusiastically while Michael Rouse looked positively sinister as George – and you really can’t do comedy with a beard. It was as if three second-year drama students were putting on an entertainment for their peers.

The second problem was that this was obviously not an adaptation of Jerome’s masterpiece. It merely provided the basis for a series of episodes loosely based on the events in the book – and with many more that were not. I give as examples you the silent movie scene; I give you Harris dressed as a Victorian stripper in a version of the ‘sawing the lady in half’ stage  illusion; I give you Harris farting in the boat. And as examples of the standard of Mr Gilbert’s jokes I give you a long silence when J holds up the plaster cast model serving as Montmorency, followed by ‘ You see? Dramatic paws.’ And how about this from Act 2: ‘I met my girlfriend over a game of cards.’ ‘Poker?’ ‘No, but we had a bit of a smooch.’ It was all a bit like listening to one of those awful student ‘comedy spots’ you hear at 6.30 on Wednesdays on Radio 4.

But half way through the first half I realised what Gilbert was trying to do. He’d seen the hilarious stage version of The Thirty-Nine Steps and thought he’d apply the same anarchic treatment to Three Men. Hence the opening of the pineapple tin, so miserably unfunny, culminating in a slow motion bashing of the tine with an oar to the strains of ‘Chariots of Fire’ and ‘The Banana Boat Song’.

Anachronisms began to occur with increasing frequency in the second half with the three men’s boat being pulled along by another boat, two of the actors in the prow with arms aloft to the theme from ‘Titanic’. On a handful of occasions, the three broke off to perform a music hall song – ‘Any old iron’ and ‘A little bit of cucumber’ (first performed 1915) among them, neatly choreographed and well sung. Anna Westlake, who remains silent throughout the show and is left to simply mug and react from the sidelines, provided these welcome breaks from the action with excellent accompaniments.

I shan’t go on. It was a dispiriting afternoon, the stage equivalent of watching that dreadful movie of Three Men with David Tomlinson, Jimmy Edwards and Laurence Harvey. Like that film, of Jerome’s original there was very little indeed. This is Craig Gilbert’s first attempt at writing a play. He is not yet experienced or expert enough in the craft to hoist his efforts on to the paying public. In any case, it’s never a good idea for a writer to direct his own work. There’s every indication that everyone had a simply hilarious time in rehearsals, but believe me guys if you can’t get a laugh from Jerome’s dialogue and have to fall back on age-old stage gags for your material, then something has gone terribly wrong. And by the way, ‘banjo’ is pronounced with the emphasis on the first syllable not the second; ‘revictualled’ is pronounced ‘re-vitalled’.


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