The Knowledge – Review

Steven Pacey & Louise Callaghan in The Knowledge. Images Scott Rylander.

“The Knowledge is bloody impossible”

Jack Rosenthal’s 1979 cabbie comedy, The Knowledge, added a new run to its infamous Blue Book – From BBC Television Centre to Charing Cross Theatre – taken for the first time on Monday night.

We might all be becoming Uber smart about public transport but London’s 20,000 black cab drivers are unique and exceptional with each one of them only getting their green badge to ply their trade once they have passed the most difficult test in the world.

Their general bonhomie with their fares and their phenomenal recall of every building on 15,000 streets in central London is legendary.

It’s no wonder Rosenthal, one of our best loved writers, who died in 2004, chose them for a BBC film.

Now Simon Block has taken a run at the script, adapting it for the stage for a new production directed by Rosenthal’s widow, actress Maureen Lipman.

The Knowledge follows three men’s journey to get their coveted green badge at a time when unemployment was high and a career as a London taxi driver offered good pay and security.

There’s a token woman candidate, Miss Staveley (Louise Callaghan) which is, suprisingly, under-written. I yearned to know more about her but her motivation for taking the test is dismissed in a sentence.

Jack the lad, Gordon, never sticks at any job but sees cabbie training as a way to have a willing fare in every postcode; the lethargic Chris has no confidence that he can do anything much less pass mustard as a black cab driver; and Ted wants to impress generations of relatives by following in the family business.

But standing in their way is examiner, Mr Burgess, known as The Vampire, who they meet at different stages in their training as knowledge boys.

Rosenthal created one of television’s great eccentic characters with Burgess, and Steven Pacey’s epically funny performance lifts the entire production out of the mundane.

He’s helped by the playwright investing his best dialogue in a character who is nothing short of barking mad. He changes accents and voices at the drop of a hat, brushes his facial hair with a toothbrush, and poses as drunken, abusive pick-ups to test his would-be drivers’ resolve and patience.

Pacey’s hysterically funny turn, and occasional moments of compassion and support, is in sharp contrast to Nigel Hawthorne’s portrayal in the orignal BBC film, that also starred Lipman, which saw Burgess being a sadistic bastard hell bent on failing them.

The ensemble cast is particularly strong but you can’t help but root for Fabian Frankel’s under-achieving and long-term unemployed Chris.

He is bullied into taking The Knowledge by his gobby girlfriend, Janet (great performance by Alice Felgate) who works all hours in a factory to keep the pair of them.

And Ted (Ben Caplan), initally irritating at how he’s finding The Knowledge “a doddle”, finds his route to happiness taking a brief diversion before making his way back on the road to happiness.

Former EastEnders’ star James Alexandrou has the meatiest part as the cocky Gordon who juggles route learning with cheating on his wife.

Will the group master the 468 runs or will they be part of the 70 per cent who fail? More than that, will their relationships survive as learning The Knowledge takes over their lives?

It’s an endearing comedy whose humour is a bit hit or miss on stage but it is worth watching for Pacey’s performance alone.

And, at a time when the capital’s cabbies are under threat from modern upstarts, it renews respect of a profession that has been plying its trade since the 1600s.

The Knowledge runs at Charing Cross Theatre until November 11.

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