Only Fools And Horses Musical | Gig review by Steve Bennett at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London © Johan Persson
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Only Fools And Horses Musical

Gig review by Steve Bennett at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London

Jukebox musicals have long been a mainstay of the West End: package a few well-known hits around a perfunctory storyline and let the fans be entertained by the familiar. Well, Only Fools and Horses could be the first comedy jukebox musical, reviving the much-loved sitcom characters and cobbling some favourite scenes together for a trip down memory lane. 

OFAH

'Here we are in 1989,’ says Rodney, unsubtly, to set the timeframe in the very first scene as he and Del Boy literally set out their stall, with the usual collection of hooky gear, such as replicas of the famous Leaning Eiffel Towers of Pisa. Grandad is still with the Trotters, Rodders is about to wed Cassandra and Derek is about to clap his mince pies on Raquel for the very first time.

The air of familiarity is reinforced by the casting. PhoneShop’s Tom Bennett more-than ably fills David Jason’s sheepskin; Ryan Hutton, making his professional debut, is the ideal soppy-minded plonker, and Paul Whitehouse, who co-wrote the show, channels Lennard Pearce, with a touch of the Fast Show’s very similar Unlucky Alf. This casting three-wheeler is a triumph – pitch-perfect impersonations all, which extends to the lookalike supporting cast, including Pippa Duffy as Cassandra, Dianne Pilkington as Raquel and Jeff Nicholson as  Boycie.

Granddad

That the audience is so accustomed to these characters – this musical is unique in that’s it’s positively not for overseas visitors – is something of a mixed blessing when it comes to story, though. The writing takes a while to find its feet, torn between acknowledging that we are all likely to know these characters and plunging us into plot, not quite deciding either way and leaving the script decidedly sketchy as it establishes what’s going on.

Right from the start, for instance, comes Rodney trying to convince Trigger his name isn’t ‘Dave’ – a nice gag over the course of a long-running sitcom, but would be bizarre coming so early in the show if you didn’t have that context. Soon afterwards, Del privately feels that his life’s financial and romantic aspirations have been limited because of the burden of having to bring up Rodney and look after Grandad, an idea that’s quickly forgotten as he reverts to his family first mantra.

All the most-repeated gags are here in some form or another: falling through the bar, chandeliers, Trigger’s enduring broom, the cigarette case anecdotes – great jokes all. They are attached to a plot drawn from the 1988 Christmas  episode Dates, in which Del meets Raquel after signing up to a dating agency, and Little Problems, which aired a couple of months later, about Del borrowing £2,000 from local gangsters the Driscoll Brothers to fund a deposit for a flat (this is the 1980s when deposits had fewer zeroes on them, remember). 

After an unsteady first half, these storylines bear fruit in the second as the perils of Del’s legal netherworld and the risk of him losing a promising relationship inject some of the pathos so associated with the sitcom while not overwhelming the general good-times spirit.

But there’s an odd diversion as Trigger looks into his crystal ball and foresees the gentrification of Peckham, with the baristas and the hipsters taking over – the enjoyably wry observation that house price rises mean they could all be millionaires not really worth the breaking of the world of 1980s-era Nelson Mandela House and The Nag’s Head. 

Trigger

Elsewhere a song similarly laments ‘Where have all the Cockneys gone?’ It’s a forgettable number, as sadly so many of them are, despite the jaunty spirit. The theme tune by series creator John Sullivan, whose son Jim co-wrote this stage adaptation with Whitehouse – is, of course a stand-out, as is the catchy and funny A Bit Of Sort, in which Del comically describes his ideal woman to an apparently strait-laced dating agent clerk, and Rodney’s ballad The Girl, which  offers a tender change of pace.

The choreography and production elevate the numbers  from Boycie’s lament as he goes to have his sperm count checked to Del wooing Raquel in a greasy spoon caff, seeking romance amid the bacon butties. Bennett is occasionally allowed to use his immense cheeky-chappy charisma to break the fourth wall to acknowledge the incongruity of these musical breaks, and this works well.

A few familiar pop hits – as used in the original TV series – prop up the mediocre original numbers, from Bill Withers’ Lovely Day to Chas & Dave’s Margate (Chas Hodges was one of the musical collaborators), which heralds a return to the raucous good times as all is resolved. 

By this point, the rickety moments of the narrative are long forgotten – as if die-hard fans would have cared too much anyway – as the infectious good sprits bring the night to an end in a raucous knees-up.

Ofah car

The Only Fools And Horses musical might be as much hooky as it is cushty, but it’s got an excellent cast, and if the show can appeal to the legions who love the sitcom, this time next year, the producers will be millionaires.

• Only Fools And Horses is booking to August 31. Click here for tickets.

Review date: 20 Feb 2019
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Theatre Royal Haymarket

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