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REVIEW: The Good Life at The Everyman Theatre

Photo: © Dan Tsantilis

The Good Life
Adapted and directed by Jeremy Sams
Based on the TV series by John Esmonde and Bob Larbey

The Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham
Tuesday, 19 October 2021

Rating: ★★★☆☆

“Any comedy featuring animals, especially pets or barnyard animals, is required … to make at least one poop joke”1
(TV Tropes: Road Apples)

It could be argued that, on the eve of the UN Climate Change Conference, The Good Life has never been more relevant.  This classic comedy concerns the fractious-but-friendly relationship between suburban eco-warriors Tom and Barbara Good and their materialist neighbours Margot and Jerry Leadbetter.

However, Jeremy Sams’s adaptation of Esmonde and Larbey’s beloved sitcom doesn’t labour the contemporary angle.  Set in the 1970s, it offers baby-boomers a stroll down memory lane (Mateus rosé! Black Forest gateau!), storylines taken from 40-odd-year-old scripts (Reheated! Like Margot’s chicken Kiev!) and, proving TV Tropes correct, an animatronic goat that poops (Live! On stage!).  There is also some edgier new material (A cake laced with marijuana! A spliff called the Surbiton Special!).

It’s a tall order, adapting a classic TV sitcom for the theatre.  The characters are conflated in our imaginations with the actors who first played them, making comparisons between the original and current casts unavoidable.  There is also a crucial difference between sitcoms and other forms of drama: in sitcoms, the characters don’t change: Baldrick will always have a cunning plan, just as Tom will always try to burst Margot’s bubble.  However, in plays set outside sitcom-world, characters develop and change is irrevocable.  This adaptation tries to square the circle by looking forward to new futures for the characters, but I’m not sure it succeeds.

Playing Tom, Rufus Hound has big wellies to fill, and he doesn’t try to go head-to-head with the late Richard Briers.  There is clear blue water between Mr Hound’s understated performance and his predecessor’s twinkling bonhomie, but this sometimes makes the character of Tom seem subdued.  More sympathetic is Sally Tatum’s perky, principled Barbara, who refuses to let Tom betray the integrity of their vision by freelancing on the side, and who tolerates his frequent “knobbery” with patient good humour.

I find the characters of Tom and Barbara – the ‘children’ in this scenario – less interesting than Jerry and Margot – the ‘grown-ups’.  Jerry (played with subtle sophistication by Dominic Rowan) is an enthusiastic participant in, and an ironic commentator on, the rat-race.  He knows the rules of the game and the compromises he must make (e.g. deliberately losing to his boss at golf).  Jerry also has great decency, nobly sacrificing his pride and joy (his new Volvo) for the benefit of an animal in distress.  In contrast, Margot (played with verve and panache by Preeya Kalidas) has no sense of irony, is totally immersed in the game of one-upmanship, and flaunts her unearned wealth and social status with an unabashed sense of entitlement.  Various supporting roles are played with gusto and obvious enjoyment by Nigel Betts and Tessa Churchard.

Michael Taylor’s set switches ingeniously between locations and is full of period detail, including bold-patterned wallpaper, cans of Double Diamond (my gateway to alcohol) and a serving hatch.  At one point, Mr Taylor dresses Barbara in a floral cardigan, connoting the flower that appeared in the title sequence of the TV sitcom.  Jeremy Sams’s staging is solidly traditional: characters sometimes converse facing the audience rather than each other; and there’s a lot of looking through the fourth wall and describing the offstage action (which, in the TV version, would have been filmed outdoors).

Quibbles aside, I enjoyed myself.  The scenario is engaging, the storylines are entertaining, and some of the one-liners are zingers.  The dinner-party scene that closes the first half is uproarious and a delight to watch.  I was transported back to my teens when, for thirty minutes at a time, I could pretend that my mum and dad were less like Jerry and Margot and more like Tom and Barbara.


Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes (including interval)
The Good Life runs at the Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham, until Saturday 23 October 2021.

Reviewer: Paul Sharples
Explore Gloucestershire
20 October 2021

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