Ealing Studios’ 1951 comedy of bowler-hatted banking and congenial criminality has been newly minted for the stage. But Jeremy Sams’ jovial touring production is often curiously leaden. While the film was a model of taut storytelling, with a slyly humorous portrait of postwar Britain and bravura suspense, Phil Porter’s adaptation is bogged down by its narrative device.
Mild-mannered London bank clerk Henry Holland (Miles Jupp) has reached Rio after masterminding a heist of gold bullion smuggled in the form of Eiffel Tower paperweights. His caper is told not as a straight flashback but re-enacted by his pals in a Brazilian bar (on New Year’s Eve, for added jollity). Scenes are cumbersomely set up, with the friends cast in roles and given notes, making Holland – originally portrayed with finely tuned expressions by Alec Guinness – rather verbose.
Eccentric settings including the boarding house where Holland meets co-conspirator Pendlebury (Justin Edwards), the warehouse where their trinkets are forged and the Bank of England are all evoked within the colourful Rio club, diluting the distinct atmosphere of each.
Francis O’Connor’s set features two towers decorated with portraits of Shakespeare and Churchill and topped with the lunette windows seen in the film. They are spun about by the cast who deftly conjure scenarios including a packed underground train and a car chase using “poor theatre” techniques. In an ongoing joke, characters suggest how certain scenes might be filmed, which brings an unhelpful constant comparison with Ealing’s masterpiece.
Enabling expat toffs in the bar to sneeringly play street criminals adds a sense of Ealing-esque class commentary and, as the man in the off-white suit, Jupp’s eyes shine with delight when he realises he has graduated from bank clerk to criminal boss. He and Edwards have a relaxed charm – and there are some convivial supporting performances – but the play doesn’t catch the intoxicating allure of immorality.
The slapstick that brings down the first half is not yet sharp enough but there is a fun juxtaposition of French and British customs officials (plus a boring Blighty seagull whose Calais counterpart squawks seductively, both played by Victoria Blunt). Charming vignettes celebrate London life, even if they lack a postwar tang, and the lines from TEB Clarke’s screenplay still sparkle amid some new witty wordplay. But despite a running gag that shows these revellers basking in the glow of gold bullion, the night never gleams as it could.