There were four of us – George, and William Samuel Harris, and myself, and Montmorency. We were sitting in my room, smoking, and talking about how bad we were – bad from a medical point of view I mean, of course.
So begins one of the most famous comic novels in English. Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men In A Boat is up there with The Pickwick Papers and Tristram Shandy for influence if not for style, and is much more frequently read than either of them. The decision of those three young men (and the dog) to cure their imaginary maladies by rowing up and down the Thames launches a series of misadventures including the time Harris fought an army of swans, the contretemps with the maze at Hampton Court and the regrettable incident with the defiant tin of pineapple. At the time it was either hailed or condemned as part of a new wave of writing by the “clerks”, smart young men whose education and interests were decidedly middle-class, though in retrospect it can look like the last flowering of the late nineteenth century, glad to be done with its strictures but yearning to believe in its idealism.
The novel has also launched a wave of adaptations over the years. Two amongst the handful I’ve enjoyed stick in the mind: Tom Stoppard’s TV version which used the three young men’s trip to illustrate the final drowsy peace of Edwardian England before the horror and dislocation of 1914. Mucking about in English history, enamoured and mischievous at the same time, there’s more than a hint in Stoppard’s Three Men In A Boat of his later plays like Arcadia and The Invention of Love (the latter actually weaves Jerome and his companions into the life and death of the poet A.E. Housman). Rodney Bewes’ one-man show of the novel won him the Stella Artois prize at Edinburgh, and I saw it as a fourteen year-old, enchanted by the show and by the sight of Bewes holding court in the bar afterwards, still in his boating blazer with a pewter tankard of beer in his hand. He brought more of the blokeish feel of Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads to the show: less of the last long doomed summer and more of the lads’ weekend away1. Both tapped into different aspects of a book which seems to welcome adaptation, possibly because it’s such a mish-mash of jumbled-up elements. Or possibly because it’s a sort of adaptation of itself, having been intended as a guide to boating on the Thames which was overbalanced (I won’t say capsized) by the comic passages.
So The Original Theatre Company have an attractive prospect: a favourite old work which has a ready-made audience, but which accommodates adaptation well. Their version is full of terrific ideas, but never quite provides the pay-off. It was a great notion to reframe the story as a speech by J himself at a meeting of a local branch of the Royal Geographical Society in the back room of a pub. This allows Alastair Whatley (as J) to play up the sentimental and historical stuff whilst his companions Christopher Brandon (George) and Tom Hackney (Harris) can nick his cue-cards and throw them into the audience when they get bored. The addition of Nellie the dignified Edwardian pianist (Sue Appleby, who also MDs the show) brings in some music-hall songs and tuneful interludes of an occasionally anachronistic character, such as the Wild West card game.
It’s full of cracking ideas, but it never quite fulfils its promise. The “physical theatre” of the programme largely consists of stamping on each other’s toes, running about the stage and building a boat out of packing cases, umbrellas and the table. Unfortunately the result still looks like a pile of packing cases, umbrellas and the table. The most effective moment of this kind – the train carriage improvised from rocking suitcases back and forward and miming windows – is too obviously similar to the sequence in The 39 Steps, which is still running up in the West End. The plentiful jokes about “the magic of theatre” and the illusion breaking down would have been fine in a show which ran at full-tilt, but they felt a bit apologetic when the first half had failed to really build up a head of steam. Christopher Brandon’s flexible and mock-melancholy countenance – allied with his singing voice – is the best thing in the show, and Tom Hackney plays the thick-headed Harris with some brio. There are laughs to be had, but this feels more like a sketch than a fully-fledged work.
1 Though he has pretty good claim to know whereof he speaks when he speak of messing about on the river, being a member of the London Rowing Club and Freeman of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames.