Alexander Mackendrick’s 1951 film about a chemist in a northern mill town who invents an indestructible fabric is a strange piece of atmospheric post-war gothic. Notionally a comedy, it’s dark, melancholy and mainly devoid of lols.
Sean Foley’s stage version is bright, upbeat and also mainly devoid of lols. It keeps the ’50s setting, adding skiffle and brothel creepers, sacks off the austerity and dials up the farce to industrial strength. Everyone bellows their lines in generic ‘northern’, there are awkward knob gags and Kara Tointon – as the mill owner’s daughter Daphne – gets to randomly resurrect one of her old ‘Strictly’ routines.
It’s single-handedly saved from total crassness by Stephen Mangan. He’s not entirely convincing as idealistic chemist Sidney Stratton but he at least tries to give him a second dimension. He’s a great physical comedian, and is fun in the first half as he blows labs up and his trousers off. Mangan was the silly-ass Bertie in Foley’s much better ‘Jeeves and Wooster’. But Sidney Stratton isn’t a silly ass: he’s an unworldly genius who can’t understand why the owner of a cotton mill and an old woman who does laundry would both be horrified at the prospect of an everlasting, dirt-repelling fabric.
‘The Man in the White Suit’ is a story about how capitalism condemns every link of its food chain to co-dependency. If one fails, they all do, and in the ’50s, the UK’s textile industry was about to be history, taking whole cities down with it. That’s basically not a funny story, and to play it just for laughs makes this version feel way more out of touch than its 70-year-old source material. Mangan isn’t given the chance to explore why his character might persevere on a path that spells doom for every other person on stage, and that feels like a waste of his intelligence as an actor.
The staging is inventive, but that and a few nods to fast fashion and a reference to proroguing parliament can’t redeem this charmless outfit. Suits you, sir? No, not really.