If you didn’t know what ‘The Knowledge’ is, you have definitely benefitted from it at one stage in your life. It’s the laborious process by which London’s black cabbies meticulously learn the tens of thousands of London streets by heart to get you from A to B. It’s very tough, and this stage adaptation of Jack Rosenthal’s TV ‘70s TV film of the same name follows the trials and tribulations of three students tackling the dreaded exam. Directed by Maureen Lipman, Rosenthal’s widow who also appeared in the film, it is adapted for the stage by Simon Block.
We follow four students - Chris, Ted, Gordon and Miss Stavely – who have decided to embark on a journey 7 out of 10 students won’t come out of the other end from. Over the course of two years, whilst having to find ways to fund their education, they spend their evenings on mopeds learning thousands of ‘runs’ as they memorise the exact position of almost every building in the capital. Of course, such a mammoth task takes its toll not only on personal sanity, but also their relationships.
Mr Burgess is the man steering the class through the test. Known as ‘The Vampire’, he’s a force to be reckoned with, mocking his students and distracting them by any means possible as they recall their routes back to him. Throughout the play, he sits in his elevated office overlooking the characters at home, speaking to them as if he is God. Unfortunately, many of the gags fall flat, especially in the first half – Steven Pacey’s Monty Python-esque funny voices and physical humour don’t quite save the script in these moments. But as the going gets tough in the second, his farcical nature is reined in which helps the story bound along.
The stories of the three men taking on the challenge are all quite interesting, but again, littered with jokes that don’t quite hit. The transformation of Chris (Fabien Frankel) from dead-beat layabout to a man with a purpose is lifting to watch, while lacklustre Gordon, who uses runs as an excuse for coming home to his wife late at night, is played perfectly cocky by James Alexandrou.
The talented Celine Abrahams, Jenna Augen and Alice Felgate also put in fine performances as the male students’ partners. Standing by their side the whole way, they put hours of effort into testing the boys, sharing in every success, and feeling every failure just as much as they do.
Lipman’s direction flows well, utilising three focal points of the stage underneath Burgess’ office as the families’ homes. An inventive set by Nicolai Hart-Hansen has traditional London street signs and two large traffic lights hang from the ceiling, with an A to Z map of the city cover the floor.
It’s an enjoyable show, and an insight into the sheer amount of work that every single person driving each black cab that passes you today has put in.
The Knowledge Tickets are available now.