Review - The Man in the White Suit at Wyndham's Theatre

The Man in the White Suit
Our critics rating: 
Date: 
Wednesday, 09 October, 2019
Review by: 

Not so much firing on every cylinder as misfiring on them, this stage version of the 1951 Ealing comedy film The Man in the White Suit is like the intrepid inventor Sidney Stratton's early experiments in the show: there's always a missing ingredient and they don't quite work, leading to regular explosions. "I know exactly where I went wrong", he keeps saying.

But the explosions are never matched by corresponding eruptions of laughter. I'm not sure writer-director Sean Foley knows quite where things are going wrong, so he keeps driving the comedy in ever more convoluted, desperate directions.

Stratton is working in the R&D department of a textile manufacturing factory called Birnley Mills, and a lot of R&D has visibly gone into creating some of the show's spectacular set pieces that include a car racing through the countryside as our hero clings to the side of it. There's inevitably a crash landing, and it could be a metaphor for the show itself: there's an awful lot of frantic activity, but it just careers off the tracks.

Michael Taylor's set sumptuously and effortlessly moving from pub to factory to stately home: it could be used for a musical, and indeed at times the show aspires to being one, with a skiffle band on hand to perform Charlie Fink's jaunty period pastiche songs. There's also a miniature chase scene using stick models that's an inventive respite from the frantically overblown activities around it.

While Stratton finally hits the jackpot with one experiment that does work as he is finally able to create an indestructible cloth, the show itself just feels more and more comically desperate.  Momentum isn't in short supply, but it's difficult to care -- even as it introduces more serious themes about Big Business's attempts to suppress the product as it would kill the market.

A large and frantically hard-working cast is led by the genial Stephen Mangan who brings considerable charm and a sweet invincibility to Stratton, but mostly the show trades in one-note comedy stereotypes for the rest of the characters, so there's not an awful lot that good actors like Richard Cordery, Richard Durden and Delroy Atkinson can bring to them, except bluster, dither and brazen them out. Sue Johnson is almost entirely wasted as Stratton's landlady who doubles up as a one-woman laundry operation (and incongruously has her speech not so subtly miked when no one else is). Kara Tointon is pretty and poised as the mill owner's daughter, and is given a brief dance to gratuitously show off her Strictly Come Dancing skills.

The Man in the White Suit is at the Wyndham's Theatre until 11th January. 

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