Whatever happened to the sitcom?

Sean Mason on adapting the Likely Lads for the stage

It’s a challenge going back to something so treasured and finding something new in it. As a nation we are very protective of our comedy heritage, even more so up north. So for a small cast in a small theatre above a pub to tackle a classic sitcom and adapt it for stage takes some guts.

From June 5 to 10, The Lass O’Gowrie, Manchester, becomes the new local for Bob Ferris and Terry Collier in Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads, adapting two episodes Strangers On A Train and Boys Night In – with a bit of End Of An Era to tie things up.

And herein lies the first pitfall of adapting TV for stage: It’s important to choose the right episodes, both as a practical concern and also to give yourself the space to play and reinterpret. We could easily have done the obvious No Hiding Place [the one where the duo try to avoid learning the result of a football match] – but as Ant and Dec learned, some things are so ingrained in the public memory that there’s just no point.

The episodes chosen are both really good, character driven scripts with a high gag rate as well as really focusing on the relationship between the two blokes, their foibles and what makes them friends.

And that should be the heart of all sitcom - ignored at your peril - character over gags and this quality of writing is something that, as an actor, is a joy to play with.

You will not find here another whine about the death of the traditional sitcom, but these words may appeal to those who yearn for the perceived good old days. Certainly, in going back to some of these old scripts, you find so much warmth, layers and facets of character and meaning beyond ‘easy’ gags.

There are challenges to reimagining such iconic parts, and you'll soon learn the greatest way to respect someone else’s performance is to not try to replicate it. Imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery. If you want to see Rodney Bewes and James Bolam's performance then stay at home and watch the DVD. If you find something in our portrayal that is similar to theirs then that’s because of the writing.

And the writing is what we're here to explore and enjoy. It's important to get the blessing of the original writers - not just from a legal standpoint but because it means they trust you to do a good job – and I’m glad to say Dick Clement has kindly given us permission to put this on.

The writing really is so rich, and so funny, there’s so much life on the page to be explored. And with the greatest respect, there are moments on the page that weren't given their chance shine on TV, facets and layers of the characters that can be mined from the scripts. That's not to cockily say we can do it better, I'm just saying there's new things to find and enjoy.

There are interesting themes here, about loneliness, growing up, and male bonding. We're calling it the original Bromance,

This isn’t one of those hokey Fawlty Towers and Father Ted dinners with questionable impressions (not sure what a Likely Lads equivalent would entail, other than a lot of ale), we’re not updating the gags for a modern audience, we’re respecting the original.

It’s a celebration of good writing, great gags and fantastic characters.

So, if you're looking for a fresh take on a classic, a bit of theatrical nostalgia or just up for a laugh with a couple of old mates in a pub, then you should come and find out Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads.

  • Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads runs from June 5 to 10 at the Lass O’Gowrie, Manchester. Tickets, priced £6 are available here

Published: 27 May 2012

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