Charing Cross Theatre
When I say that The Knowledge takes some time to get going, I mean it in multiple senses – the first, and most literal, is the fact that the start time of seven thirty came and went and the staff of Charing Cross Theatre were still directing the audience to their seats with little sense of urgency about their task. The second is the narrative sense; for a play with a fairly brisk running time, it takes a long while for things to go anywhere.
The opening scenes serve as three massive exposition dumps for our three leads – Chris (Fabien Frankel), Ted (Ben Caplan) and Gordon (James Alexandrou), three men taking the notoriously difficult ‘knowledge’ test (memorising thousands of London streets off by heart), in order to become London cabbies. Three times over the audience has a large amount of background flung at them, with the characters stating things their scene partners obviously know already; it’s surprising that more sentences don’t end with the words “which of course, you know.” Little details of everyone’s lives are best presented when they slip through in conversation and off-hand remarks, not spoon fed, through Simon Block’s adaptation of Jack Rosenthal’s screenplay. When the drama finally arrives late in act one, it’s decent enough stuff, but all a little too late, and the audience enters the interval altogether unbothered by what happens to this group of characters.
Thank goodness then, for the arrival of Mr Burgess aka ‘The Vampire’, the knowledge’s toughest examiner. For the fourth time the audience is presented with reams of information – but Steven Pacey’s Burgess is hilariously bonkers, and delivers it with real, unexpected showmanship. Finally things get interesting. Burgess struts, postures, grooms his moustache, affects accents and impersonations, taunts and mocks the candidates and improvises various ludicrous scenarios with aplomb. Setting the candidates their studies of London’s streets, he trots back to his office where he remains for a lot of the action, a constant, ominous, lingering presence. Pacey does an awful lot to redeem this play and is the unquestionable highlight of it.
Elsewhere in the cast, women are relegated to the role of partners, bar one token knowledge candidate with the obligatory speech about how she just wants to do what the men do and prove she’s capable, but we don’t even learn her first name. There’s also a wince-inducing appearance by an Arab tourist which adds very little to proceedings beyond a clumsy caricature.
Act two picks up proceedings with a little more as the candidates work towards passing the knowledge and gaining the fabled green badges that prove it. They continue their endless ‘runs’, set routes around the city they must know by heart (the programme makes it clear to any cab drivers present that the runs of 1979 may differ slightly from those of 2017). But still Burgess is the most entertaining element of it all. His tactics are cleverly catered to each candidate, such as theorising the misogyny that female candidate Miss Stavely (the underused Louise Callaghan) will inevitably face on the job. Burgess is obviously trying to test if they’ll be able to handle real life situations, with all their unpredictability away from the office, and yet unbelievably none of the others seem to cotton on to this until it’s spelled out for them.
Directed by the late Rosenthal’s wife Maureen Lipman, the staging is rather uninspired. It does the job of moving the players about the set, but nothing surprises until an interesting tableau at the end of the first half. The creativity and imagination behind this is apparent, but you wonder where it’s been so far. Andrew Johnson’s sound design is well done and very clear, although the usage of 70’s hits is perhaps predictable. Jonathan Lipman’s excellent costumes place us firmly in the era, amongst Nicolai Hart-Hansen’s appropriately retro set.
There’s no doubt that this is a timely production, with controversial private hire firm Uber posing the latest threat to the world of the London cabbie. But despite its intriguing subject matter and some easy laughs, the execution is largely unremarkable. With its tidy ending and compact narrative, The Knowledge is satisfying enough, but capable of so much more than is ever delivered.