Review: The Lavender Hill Mob. Cambridge Arts Theatre

The Lavender Hill Mob

Cambridge Arts Theatre

16th January 2023

Now that panto season has packed up its beanstalks and wigs for another year, theatres are beginning to unveil a range of new shows to try and ease those January blues and kick 2023 off in style.  Opening their new season, the Cambridge Arts Theatre are kicking things off with the world premiere production of “The Lavender Hill Mob”.  Based on the 1951 film screenplay by T.E.B Clarke, Oliver-nominated writer Phil Porter has adapted the Ealing comedy classic for the stage in a brand new adaptation, directed by Jeremy Sams.

The play follows the plot of the original film, introducing us to Henry Holland (Miles Jupp), a former London banker, who recounts the story of how he masterminded the robbery and subsequent export of gold bullion worth £1million.  Holland acts out his tale with the help of his accomplice Alfred Pendlebury (Justin Edwards), and an assortment of other social acquaintances around them, all under the watchful eyes of Detective Farrow (Guy Burgess), who hopes to arrest Holland for his crimes.

Director Jeremy Sams is used to telling stories of multiple characters in a single setting, having brought ‘Noises Off’ to the stage back in 2000.  ‘The Lavender Hill Mob’ is far less intrinsically clever than that prior work, and certainly takes a while to warm up, and Phil Porter’s writing also seems to wander around the houses before properly establishing its tone and intention.  It’s all frightfully proper (as is to be expected), but the play takes a while to find its feet, being mildly amusing rather than funny, and floundering at a lacklustre pace that rarely leaves second gear. 

That said, it’s very much a show of two halves, with the second act eclipsing its predecessor in every way, being far cleverer, wittier, visually more interesting (special mention to Francis O’Connor’s clever Eiffel Tower design), and overall feeling far more assured. It’s almost as if its creatives were unsure of what they were going for initially, then had a drink in the interval, and came back deciding to just have fun with it all. If the first half shared more of the second half’s whimsy and quirkiness, the show would be far more engaging from the outset, and it’s a shame that it leaves its best cards up its sleeve until later on.

At its heart, ‘The Lavender Hill Mob’ survives thanks to a strong central performance from Miles Jupp who delivers lengthy chunks of dialogue with an endearingly bumbling effortlessness, and remains thoroughly watchable throughout.  He’s ably supported by a talented ensemble cast, with Tessa Churchard, John Dougall and Victoria Blunt all particularly standing out as versatile actors playing a range of different characters and shining in their own individual moments.

At nearly 75 years old, there is a quaint traditionalism to the Ealing comedy style, warm and gentle rather than the more acerbic bite and self-awareness of much of today’s writing, and it does perhaps raise the question of how much longer plays of this era will appeal to modern audiences before they become museum pieces from a bygone time.  As gently unassuming as the flower of its title, ‘The Lavender Hill Mob’ may not excite but it entertains well enough, and a likeable cast led by an impressive Jupp makes it a better option than sitting in front of the TV this week.

‘The Lavender Hill Mob’ runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday 21st January, before continuing its UK tour.

Performance runtime 2 hours including interval.

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