Popular sitcoms have often been transferred to the stage many years after their initial TV run. Their situations and actors are often adapted for the theatre. Despite the many that the critics brand ‘a great success’- I’m thinking Rising Damp and ‘Allo ‘Allo, just to name a couple, I am very reluctant to go and see a production of my favourite sitcoms anywhere else. The only reason I saw Roy Clarke’s Keeping Up Appearances stage adaptation was because it was my friend’s birthday (it was of course very good).
I seem to convince myself that they won’t work on stage, which, let’s be honest is stupid as sitcoms are often very theatrical, with their over-the-topness, and are generally full of farce. However, this is not the pressing issue I have when it comes to deciding to book a ticket for a sitcom on the stage; it is the fact that generally it is not the same actors playing our favourite characters. I have no doubts at all that they will do a fantastic job and make the characters their own but it isn’t the same. Saying that, I bet if they virtually mirrored the original actor’s portrayal I would moan- so I really am hard to please when it comes to this subject.
So when the news broke out that Eric Chappell was going to resurrect his sun-set sitcom Duty Free for stage and that three out of the four original cast would star in it, one couldn’t help but see if it was playing at a playhouse near me.
And it was, the Lyceum at Sheffield were housing it for a week and what with being able to grab two front row seats for Saturday’s matinee, so that I wouldn’t have to book the day off work, I couldn’t resist but to spend more of my student loan on nothing to do with uni.
Of course, I am familiar with Duty Free and love the concept, I have to hold my hands up and say I have yet to see every episode and in order. I was going to order the boxset before I saw the play for reference but I forgot. The fact that I don’t know every episode inside out, word-for-word was probably a swaying matter when it came to booking the tickets, I asked my mum who had never even heard of the show if she would like to accompany me as she too enjoys comedies and it a keen theatre goer.
This of course got me thinking would it appeal more to her as she had never seen the show? Would she enjoy it more than myself because she was going into the stalls completely open minded?
By the time it came to Sheffield Last of the Duty Free had already had ventured a fair bit across the country and had received mixed reviews-most lukewarm like the Marbella sea, where the show is set. Of course I never let a review sway my opinion and not every critic had even seen the show when it was on ITV orginially airing from 1984-86. I did have faith in the production because it was penned by Eric Chappell himself and had already done (so I am told) a marvellous job in transferring his other show Rising Damp to the stage.
I saw the show on the 21st of June and as it was a glorious day I was all ready for a couple of hours in Marbella seeing how life was treating David, Amy, Linda and Robert. The set was spectacular (I am always won over by a fantastic set); it really was as if we were all at a holiday resort. So the first thirty seconds I thought we could be onto a winner.
The first character was the hopeless tired waiter, Carlos (Graham Elwelll who had taken over the role from the late Carlos Douglas), quickly followed by David, played by legend Keith Barron. His character was waiting for an old flame going by the name of Linda (as Joanna Van Gyseghem was unavailable Carol Royle accepted the role).
David and Linda had arranged a reunion at the very hotel they met thirty years ago, when they began their ‘fling’, of course neither of their spouses know the real reasons for their trips aboard. At first I wasn’t sure about it, I wasn’t sure of Royle’s take on Linda, it was quite wooden and uneasy, bordering on being too over-the-top, while there was chemistry between her and Barron it was awkward- though if you are meeting someone you tried to have an affair with several decades later you are bound to be a bit edgy.
Ten minutes in and the fate of this show was sealed. It came of course in the fabulous form of Gwen Taylor (playing Amy), now I am a big fan of Taylor’s works, she has that talent of putting someone down while she has a glint in her eye. The chemistry between her and Barron who plays her on-screen/stage husband David seems to have grown since the show ended. The banter and put downs bouncing between the two were hilarious to watch, they seemed so natural and you really did believe that was how Amy and David would end up as they got older. However, some of the comebacks were a little dated, which I understand some reviewers didn’t like. I for one thought they were fine; they went with the original show and most probably the holiday resort. I was expecting some corny, dated jokes as they go with sitcoms and for me not only give a nostalgic nod to the original series but act as a comfort blanket for all situation comedies. There was a joke that I recognised from an early series of My Family about being left out to die with the rubbish and the punch line being about the laws on fly tipping (I’m sure the joke is older than My Family). But even so the way Gwen Taylor delivered it made me laugh just as much as when I heard the delightful Zoë Wanamaker tell it.
Speaking of My Family, the build up to Robert’s entrance was very comical what with the description of him suffering from anger issues ever since he found out about David and his wife Linda’s ‘fling, this was pulled off by Neil Stacy brilliantly but I couldn’t help but notice jut how much he looks like Robert Lindsay these days. (Are they related do you know? If you do answers on a post card please!)
I don’t want to give anything away if any of you dear readers are going to see the play, so don’t worry no spoilers here. I think the introduction to the honeymoon couple Jeremy, played by James Barron (yes he is Keith’s son) and Clare (Maxine Gregory) were great when it come to adding a bit of farce into the mix, however, those familiar with the series will draw a few parallels between this and the episode in series two entitled ‘couples’ (episode three I believe).
Despite that I really enjoyed the storyline and the newlyweds acted brilliantly. I did laugh rather a lot and my mother, even louder.
I soon got used to the way Royle was playing Linda and found her to be a good replacement for Van Gyseghem and slotted in really well, gelling with the rest of the cast. I thought Elwell as Carlos was brilliant, and with minimal dialogue he had the hard task of telling the story through his facial expressions which had hilarious consequences.
I think the laughs peaked at the end of act one as various nods to the television programme were made and Amy’s put downs to David got sharper and much more witter.
Two things that really made me laugh that probably should have- you wouldn’t have even noticed them if you weren’t sitting on the front row were the cakes used for Amy’s ‘cream-cake gate’ round two, were mostly made of sponge and the best one was Keith Barron seemed favour elastic bands to shoelaces when tying up his Converse.
What made the show work wonderfully, for me was the fact the four main characters were not together until right at the end leading towards an ultimate showdown, what was also clever was despite the show sounding like it was there to tie up the loose ends left by the television programme it depended which way you saw it, as to whether that was the last time we will see them. (Sheffield theatres changed the advertisement on their website from Last of the Duty Free to Duty Free Live, so I could be easily reading into too much.) I think all the old and all the new elements of this production worked wonderfully, it was the perfect summer escape for someone not holidaying this year, it made both me and my mum roar with laughter and left us wanting to squeeze every last from possible out of the Duty Free, but for me I doubt this would have been possible without the wonderful Gwen Taylor. Though you could tell Keith Barron was the driver of the cast shouting at them to bow at the end, he even yelled it looking in our direction come the encore!
So next time I see a stage adaption of a British sitcom I won’t be so quick to dismiss it and all I have left to say about Duty Free is if you still have chance to see it, see if you can, it is worth it- well I thought so and of course, purchase of the boxset is imminent!