How do you take an iconic British television play and not only recreate it for the stage, but improve on it? The answer is simple, give it to Vaughan Williams, Stephen M. Levy, Maureen Lipman and Simon Block and let them work their magic!
The stage adaptaion of the Knowledge isn't just a re-creation of the 1979 televesion drama, it's a re-invention, that while staying close to Jack Rosenthals original screenplay, strikes out on its own terms and demands your full attention. This in itself is a testament to Simon Blocks wriiting and understanding of the subject matter.
There are some subtle and some not so subtle differences to the original screenplay. There is a clear expansion on the main characters lives which give a more rounded view of their personas. Maureen Lipmans direction of her late husbands masterpiece is perfect, highly witty and yet quite dark in parts, The Knowledge examines the stresses and strains of undertaking the toughest topographical test in the world.
Although the play is still set in 1979 as per the original screenplay, The Knowledge could be set in 2017 and still be as relevant today as it was nearly 40 years ago. The play follows 3 Knowledge students and their partners as they toil, struggle and strive for that coveted Green badge. Unlike the original screenplay there is no main focus on one specific character, Chris, the jobless no-hoper, cajoled and harangued into going on the knowledge by his girlfriend Janet Ted the genius who is supported and adored by his wife Val and Gordon the lecherous chancer struggling in his relationship with his wife Brenda all share the stage equally without one character ever really dominating. In a surprise move one of the main characters from the original screenplay has been dropped completely, in turn a very minor character has a fully expanded role, this works surprisingly well and assists in keeping the play modern and relevant. Then we come to the Ubiquitous Mr Burgess, the Public Carriage Officer brilliantly played by Steven Pacey, sadistic, terrifying and comical yet somehow highly endearing.
The dynamic between Fabien Frankel and Alice Felgate is sublime and almost carries a hint of innocence as the young couple strive to find their way in life. Ben Caplan and Jenna Augen thrive in their role as Ted and Val and provide some of the plays more heartwarming moments as a couple who are clearly trying to escape from the shadow of their family circle. James Alexandrou and Celine Abrahams bounce off of each other brilliantly as bickering couple Gordon and Brenda. Steven Pacey's interpretation of Mr Burgess is every prospective taxi drivers worst nightmare as he brings to life the carriage officer from hell. Nigel Hawthorns original incarnation of Mr Burgess in the TV adaptation was a tour de force, but Steven Pacey has managed to pull off the seemingly impossible and surpassed Hawthorns performance.
The play examines the emotional and psychological damage that the knowledge can inflict in a highly witty and sometimes sardonic way. In an age where sat-nav technology is seen by some as the way forward, this play makes you sit up amd take notice of the fact that The Knowledge isn't just a topographical test, it's so much more than that.
So, will The Knowledge appeal to a wider audience, outside of the taxi trade? The answer is a resounding yes. There is something for everybody in this adaptation of Jack Rosenthals masterpiece. Superb acting, wonderful direction, an excellent script - this show ticks all of the boxes.
The Knowledge is on at the Charing Cross Theatre until 11 November. Box office: +44 (0)2890 313 022