The Knowledge at Charing Cross Theatre
Only an exceptional writer can take training cab drivers as a premise and turn it into something interesting. Jack Rosenthal wrote the screenplay for the 1979 TV movie The Knowledge, which was a comic insight into a taxi driver’s journey into earning their Green Badge. Is the stage adaptation by Simon Block, directed by Maureen Lipman, as successful?
The Knowledge follows a group of would-be cabbiess, who have to pass a rigorous examination process known as the Knowledge in order to drive a black cab. This involves learning the details of every street in London; but with thousands of streets to learn by heart, this proves to be a near-impossible task.
The set in Charing Cross Theatre, designed by Nicolai Hart-Hansen, is colourful and evokes a sort of 70s modern art environment. But although it’s lovely to look at, it doesn’t suit the tone of the play. It removes the flavour of a working-class setting, appearing more like an opulent musical than a kitchen-sink comedy.
Before the interval, many of the jokes fall flat – largely because of their predictability, but also due to Lipman’s lack of comedic direction. The actors are rushed, spitting out their lines as quickly as possible. In the second half, however, the jokes are funnier and the actors seem better adjusted to their comic environment. But what’s most surprising is Lipman’s talent in directing drama, executing tense scenes with quiet devastation.
Steven Pacey gives the standout performance as the Pythonesque Mr Burgess, and is the comedy highlight of the evening. His bizarre vocals and hilarious movements create a surreal and vibrant presence on stage. The female characters are more watchable than the male protagonists, which is a testament to Block’s desire to modernise the script with better roles for women. Louise Callaghan, who has the smallest female part, takes the most memorable scenes. She plays the only woman taking the Knowledge test, and Block expands her character into a feminist hero – addressing the issues female cab drivers face on a daily basis. Callaghan delivers a funny and charismatic performance, creating a character we root the most for.
Block and Lipman have made an entertaining little show and a fascinating exploration into the intelligence of London taxi drivers, which is becoming a dying state-of-mind in the digital days of Uber. But for a play claiming to be a comedy, it’s regrettably light on laughs.
Photo: Scott Rylander
The Knowledge is at Charing Cross Theatre from 4th September until 11th November 2017. For further information or to book visit here.