Friday, 22 September 2017

The Knowledge

A clever, comic, moving, and clever play on life in the front of a cab, and the journey to get there

Written by Sam Taylor
There are over 20,000 licensed black cab drivers in London, and all of them know my address – this is less remarkable when I say that I live on a road that is the very first run onSam-Taylor-colour-176 the cabbies' 'Knowledge'. For trivia fans, the run is Manor House to Gibson Square. It means that I've never had to give directions home but then I doubt very much that you've had to either; that's the point of black cabs. Even in these SatNav times, the green badge dangling around the driver's neck is literally a badge of honour: a sign that they have crammed in the details of every street, hotel, landmark building and public space within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross station. On average it takes three years to qualify and has been compared to obtaining a degree – except most of the studying takes place while driving a moped.

But does this intellectual feat make for good drama? In short, yes. Based on the late Jack Rosenthal's cleverly contrived 1979 TV drama, The Knowledge, Simon Block's skilful adaptation for the stage follows the compelling journey undertaken by a group of wannabes and manages to stay close to the original script while allowing for an off-road setting. Maureen Lipman's direction is light but well signalled and who better to steer Rosenthal's work than his widow? It is a play that relies on comic timing, and Maureen is
a past master. It is also an acutely observed study of inter-personal relationships; at times painful back stories lead into scenes provoking peals of laughter as we follow their routes to success or failure.

Ben Caplan is outstanding as the earnest, law-abiding, Jewish family man Ted Margolis, who is derailed by wide boy Gordon; a chutzpah-filled delivery by ex-EastEnders actor, James Alexandrou. Fabien Frankel's Chris is the ingenue, his halting presence in the first half developing, deliberately, in direct contrast to the raging ambition of his girlfriend Janet (Alice Felgate). He is going to get that badge if she has to drag him there. Louise Callaghan is a stand-out as Miss Staveley, a woman in a man's world, artfully deflecting the overt sexism. Even now it seems unusual to have a woman in the front of the cab. The pivotal character is Steven Pacey's faultless portrayal of Mr Burgess, the sadistic, hysterical examiner at the Public Carriage Office who could be equally at home at GCHQ. Cleverly, no attempt has been made to rip Rosenthal's narrative from its 1970s setting, giving the audience a chance to revisit the fashions and cosy familiarity of a pre-Uber time.

At the Charing Cross Theatre, London WC2 until 11 November: 0844-493 0650, 

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