Much is made, in the publicity around this stage refit of The Good Life, of its modern relevance – society in the 2020s being even more concerned with sustainability and self-fulfilment than it was in the 1970s, when the TV sitcom first aired. But one does not, let’s face it, emerge from Jeremy Sams’s adaptation electrified by its urgency – or anything else about it. It is as plain an instance of the cash-in as you’ll see, a show that would never be staged were there not deep wells of affection for the original on which to draw for an audience.
So will that audience be satisfied? Not if they’re looking for The Good Life to be revitalised, or substantially reimagined for theatre. This is less a play than a two-hour compendium of sitcom episodes – which, in fairness, is what Sams promises in the programme (“an homage to the characters [and] an old-fashioned comedy”). It introduces us to Tom (Rufus Hound) and Barbara (Sally Tatum), in the throes of Tom’s 40th-birthday midlife crisis. When he quits his job making plastic toys for cereal packets, the pair commit to “self-sufficiency in Surbiton”, farming livestock in the back garden – much to the dismay of snooty Jerry and Margo next door.
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That’s the situation, which is all sitcom needs. But a two-hour drama wants development, or emotional significance – which the production stabs at, by making more of the couples’ childlessness, and stoking vague suspense around Jerry’s job security. Finally, though, this is a sequence of set-pieces, from the dissolute dinner party fuelled by hash cakes (a Sams innovation, that) to the scramble to revive a dying piglet. This latter highlights Barbara’s broodiness, while providing stock 70s cameos (a doctor, a milkman, a cockney copper) for supporting cast members Nigel Betts and Tessa Churchard to savour.
Elsewhere, Preeya Kalidas and Dominic Rowan resuscitate Margo and Jerry with aplomb. But rivalling Richard Briers’ and Felicity Kendal’s lovable charisma proves a thankless task for Hound and Tatum. It jollies along – there’s an animatronic goat, for goodness sake – but is never funny enough to justify the dramatic inertia, nor make this stage adaptation feel remotely necessary.
The Good Life is at Theatre Royal, Bath, until 16 October. Then touring until 4 December.