With a flurry of transfers arriving from Broadway, I’ve been wondering where the new British musicals are in the West End; but be careful what you wish for. While the new Broadway shows are all variously progressive – from telling true stories in the marvellous just-opened Come from Away and a principally female-led creative team to tell a story of female empowerment in Waitress to another story of teenage suicide and social media promotion in the forthcoming Dear Evan Hansen – Only Fools and Horses – the Musical is an entirely British throw-back to another age.
That’s not just to a TV series that first aired 38 years ago – and ran for 7 seasons from 1981 to 1991, plus subsequent regular return Christmas specials up to 2003 – but also to a very English style of musicals that’s even older. Untouched by the Lloyd Webber era of epic spectacles, this is one of those scrappy, character-based book musicals of the 50s and 60s, with a score that is rooted as much in music hall as it is in musicals, like a cross between the sounds of Sandy Wilson, Lionel Bart and David Heneker. And also not just to songs so derivative that you think you’ve heard them before, but to ones you actually have: there are jukebox inclusions of the 1977 Bill Withers classic “Lovely Day” and Mick Hucknall and Neil Moss’s 1985 Simply Red hit “Holding Back the Years”.
This musical tries to hold back the years, too, providing an instant flashback to the same line-up of principal TV sitcom characters Del Boy (Tom Bennett), his younger brother Rodney (Ryan Hutton, making a notable professional debut that both expertly channels TV’s original Nicholas Lyndhurst yet makes him something of his own, too), their granddad (Paul Whitehouse, who also co-wrote this show with Jim Sullivan, son of the original TV writer John Sullivan). There are also appearances from the regular denizens of the Nag’s Head pub including used car salesman Boycie (Jeff Nicholson) and roadsweeper Trigger (Peter Baker). There are also, of course, the two women Del Boy and Rodney variously court: aspiring actress (and it turns out, strippergram) Raquel (Dianne Pilkington) and Cassandra (Pippa Duffy).
Just how much you warm to it will largely depend on your wish to revisit a beloved TV series in this new but hardly revelatory format. As directed and choreographed by Caroline Jay Ranger, the pace is uneven; songs fail to emerge organically out of the action, but feel bolted onto a version of a TV script.
But there are occasional pleasures to be had in moments when it hews most closely to its origins, like Del Boy’s pratfall as he leans on the bar but misses it entirely, or when his canary yellow Reliant Robin van makes an onstage appearance.
Only Fools and Horses – the Musical is at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until August 2019.
Only Fools and Horses the Musical tickets are available now.
Photo credit: Johan Persson