Rising Damp

Revival of the original play, reviewed by Steve Bennett

This is certainly a piece of comedy history. Originally called Banana Box, Eric Chappell wrote this play in 1971, when he was still an auditor for an electricity board struggling to make it as a writer. As it toured the UK, it was spotted by a TV executive who thought it might make a decent sitcom… and the years have proved him right.

It is also historical in another way, capturing the era’s fears – among some at least – that immigration would spell an end to the England they knew. Its original title comes from the racist argument that a black person born in Britain can never be truly British: ‘If a cat has kittens in a banana box, what do you get - kittens or bananas?’

Some things never change, although the regimented society of the late Sixties was certainly different from today. Squalid landlord Rigsby (originally called Rooksby and played by Steptoe actor Wilfrid Brambell, trivia fans) had a tenuous, misplaced sense of superiority, but was easily outsmarted by his erudite black tenant Philip, who teasingly played with Rigsby’s views by paying up the idea that he was a noble tribal chieftan.

The play has not often been revived, and the pitfalls are obvious. Over 28 frequently-repeated episodes, the characters of Rigsby, Philip, Alan and Miss Jones have become so closely associated with the actors who played them, it poses a dilemma for future productions: Do you impersonate the originals, like those dining shows based around Fawlty Towers, or try to reinterpret the characters anew?

This version, in the tiny theatre above Manchester’s Lass O’Gowrie pub, has gone for the second option, with mixed success. The main stumbling block is that the ghost of Leonard Rossiter hangs so heavily over the play, that Matt Lanigan cannot fully exorcise it.

His Rigsby is the same miserly, furtive, reactionary character we all know – and like Rossiter, Lanigan gives him the sympathetic edge of being more sad than monstrous, hanging on to the rigid British order as if he was an important cog in the Establishment rather than a socially awkward owner of substandard accommodation. Lanigan does a decent job – and he’s particularly adept in a bit of almost silent comedy as he nervously prepares for the object of his affections, Ruth Jones, to enter a love-trap he has laid – but can’t quite fill the very tall order of making the role his own.

The other actors have more success. Philip, here played by Zariah Bailey, is very similar to the character Don Warrington brought to life: the very antithesis of Rigsby – charismatic, well-spoken and sure of himself – although his room-mate Alan (Sean Mason) is even more naïve than the likeable innocent Richard Beckinsale portrayed, and if he holds left-wing ideals, they are never voiced. Meanwhile Miss Jones (Louisa-Mai Parker) is here a little more savvy than Frances de la Tour’s version, more prepared to exploit the romantic attention she gets to swell her ego.

The relations between this band of losers are as comically fertile as you could expect – and while there are jokes in the script (including the particularly delightful description of robust underwear as Harvest Festivals because ‘all is safely gathered in) the wit comes from the characters and their interplay, rather that well-crafted zingers.

This was only the second night, in front of a miniscule audience, but the production already has a good sense of identity. Now and again the timing is off, but those are relatively easy bumps to iron out when the script is strong and the actors decent.

It’s easy to see how this could become a successful touring production of provincial theatres – but for now it’s a bargain at a fiver at the Manchester Comedy Festival. That’s a price even the parsimonious Rigsby couldn’t complain about.

Rising Damp is at the Lass O’Gowrie, Manchester, on October 19, 25, 26, 27 and 28 at 6.30pm. Tickets

Published: 19 Oct 2011

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