If there’s a screen still flickering in the UK at the end of the world, it’ll probably be playing on loop that bit where Derek ‘Del Boy’ Trotter falls through the bar. John Sullivan’s ‘Only Fools and Horses’ has long since transformed from being just a TV show into a cultural phenomenon, annually topping those breathless audience polls as ‘Best British Comedy Ever, Ever, Ever’.
It’s on that tidal wave of public adoration that this musical version of the misadventures of wheeler-dealer Del Boy, his hapless brother Rodney and their granddad, living together on a Peckham council estate at the tail end of the ’80s, sails into the West End’s Theatre Royal Haymarket. It’s co-written by Jim ‘son of John’ Sullivan and comic actor extraordinaire Paul Whitehouse (who’s also on stage as Granddad).
Director Caroline Jay Ranger sets out her market stall early, as Del Boy (Tom Bennett) promises ‘plonker’ Rodney (Ryan Hutton), ‘This time next year, we’ll be millionaires.’ What follows is a blizzard of catchphrases, quotes and characters. Boycie and Marlene, Trigger, Mickey and Denzil are all crammed on stage and into the Nags Head. When Del tries hawking dodgy Eiffel Towers to the audience, he’s also selling us easy nostalgia. His battered Reliant car turns up like a guest star.
It’s affectionate fun. There are some good gags – including an early tease of Del’s bar fall – and the sitcom's iconic theme tune works well as a refrain (sung by the cast) for the twinkly cheekiness of this show’s tone. And while Bennett lacks David Jason’s instinctive irrepressibility, his Del is a goofy, sympathetic presence. He, Hutton (making a strong professional debut here) and a predictably pitch-perfect Whitehouse have good chemistry as lovingly exasperated family.
But, by God, the show’s storyline is stretched thinly here. Sullivan and Whitehouse have tried to cram a crowd-pleasing 64 episodes of material into a plot based on just one: ‘Dates’, in which Del meets his future wife, Racquel (played here with a lot of charm by Dianne Pilkington). The resulting experience is like a low-stakes drift through a Madame Tussauds exhibition and a greatest hits compilation. Ranger’s slightly stiff staging doesn’t help that sense.
This is also a show with the rougher edges of the TV version rubbed off. Sensibly, this includes the dodgier gender and racial politics of the ’80s. But while the original series weren’t specifically political, they did span (and acknowledge) the Thatcher years. Here, a fantasy sequence inspired by Trigger’s vision of the future (don’t ask) of soya-latte-selling baristas is as much about a fairy tale of the past as a jibe at gentrification.
And Sullivan and Whitehouse’s newness to musicals (this is their first) shows in songs that, despite some nice music hall and ’80s ballad callbacks, are fairly unmemorable. Most that do register are by other people. As Mrs Obooko, Melanie Marshall gives a soulful rendition of Simply Red’s ‘Holding Back the Years’, as Del is beaten up by the Driscoll brothers in a scene of sudden brutality, and it's powerful. This is one of too few moments where this production, entertaining as it is, finds its own feet and doesn’t simply prop itself up against the past.