Surprisingly, Jack Rosenthal didn’t win an award for The Knowledge, a play he wrote in 1979. Despite being, what many regard as the work that defined London at that time he was only nominated for the Prix Italia British Academy Best Play Award. Now, this seminal work on learning to be a London cabbie and of the candidate’s perseverance, triumph over adversity and redemption has, after nearly 40 years, reached the London stage.
It still retains some of the great comic dialogue spoken by the examiner, Mr Burgess, based on a real-life, notoriously sadistic examiner, a Mr Finlay. It was played in the original Euston Films production by Nigel Hawthorne, while here we have Steven Pacey reprising the role.
The dialogue is a joy:
Mr Burgess addressing the candidates:
Now, The Knowledge sounds impossible. It isn’t. Otherwise, there’d be no such phenomenon as the London cabby. It’s true that no taxi-driver in no other city in the world has to know a fraction of what you have to know. And not many brain surgeons neither. But there we are. That’s how we built an Empire – and, no doubt, how we knocked the bugger down again. We live . . . We learn . . . What we, in our ignorance, call Knowledge.
The clever set is on two levels with street signs and traffic signals suspended from the fly loft. The use of two stages has enabled the upper to be exclusively for the examiner, Mr Burgess’s office, while the main stage is used for all the other sets.
Before the play commences a montage of interviews, by cabbies and examiners, are projected onto the back fly.
This ensemble play has at its core Mr Burgess played convincing by Steven Pacey – who’s almost as close to a real examiner as the original played by Nigel Hawthorne – while perched above the rest of the cast in his office.
Clever rearranging of the original dialogue by Simon Block has brought this convincingly to the stage and given it the necessary pace to push the dialogue forward, due in no small measure by the directorial skills of Maureen Lipman.
Most of the original characters are here, with the exception of ‘Titanic’, the hapless Knowledge boy in the original.
Ben Caplan reprises the central role of Ted Margolies, whose family are all London cabbies, and the only way to gain their respect is to join them. Ted is encouraged by his very Jewish wife Val, played by ‘Birds of a Feather’ star Lesley Joseph in the original. Here Jenna Augen convincing plays Ted’s proud wife and is simply the star of the production. Every time she is talking, or singing, to her husband she dominates the stage.
Another nice touch was the inclusion of a parrot in Mr Burgess’s office. Not featured in the original, the most dreaded of examiners of my generation was Mr Ormes (briefly featured in the opening clips), he had a toy parrot who mirrored Mr Ormes’s mood that day. Looking out – happy; looking towards the Knowledge student; moody. Nice touch, as the in-joke was only intended for cab drivers.
If you want to understand The Knowledge, or for that matter, want to see one of London’s funniest plays, make an ‘appearance’ at the Charing Cross Theatre.
The Knowledge by Jack Rosenthal; adapted by Simon Block, and directed by Maureen Lipman
Runs from Monday 11th September until Saturday 11th November.
Charing Cross Theatre
London WC2N 6NL
Box office: 08444 930 650
Monday to Saturday at 7.30 pm
Wednesday matinee at 2.30 pm
Saturday matinee at 3.00 pm
Premium £42.50 which includes prime stalls locations, a programme and a glass of bubbly.
A booking fee applies to phone and internet orders; no booking fee to personal callers.
The box office is open from 2 hours before curtain time on performance days.