Grace Theatre, London SW11
Opened 19 December, 1996

Although the eighteen (so far) Discworld novels of Terry Pratchett are often sneered at in the review pages of broadsheet newspapers, Pratchett more or less invented parody-fantasy as a genre with its own coherent if cock-eyed rules. It is too easy to dismiss him as a cult, albeit one with more acolytes than a number of churches. The more trainspotterish of his fans may deprecate the first professional London production of a stage version of one of his books (Guards! Guards! is number eight in the Discworld cycle): it is adapted by Geoffrey Cush rather than the semi-official hand of Stephen Briggs; the sardonically informative voice of the narrator is entirely expunged, along with one or two cherished minor characters; and the orangutan librarian wears a frock coat rather than a skin six sizes too big for him, among other points.

Cush and director Peter Benedict have chosen to be faithful to the spirit of Pratchett rather than the letter; instead of distracting themselves with a wealth of magnificently amusing but strictly unnecessary detail, they have aimed to recount in the broadly appropriate spirit the central story, in which a mystically summoned dragon menaces the frankly unsavoury city of Ankh-Morpork and particular the hapless City Guard, whose ranks have recently swollen to three with the recruitment of a 6'5" dwarf named Carrot.

The absence of Pratchett's narratorial voice is a palpable loss: Briggs's adaptations have been known to include two narrators one for main text, one for footnotes. Nevertheless, the principal characters are by and large nicely realised: particularly noteworthy are Sarah Whitlock as Lady Sybil Ramkin, a kind of cross between Shelley Winters and Margaret Rutherford who runs a kennel-club for miniature dragons, and Iain Stirland as Carrot, the enthusiastic innocent who leads an implausibly charmed life. As the protagonist Captain Vimes, Colin Starkey takes a while to balance the sodden with the cynical side of his character; Benedict himself makes an efficiently astringent city secretary, and Alex Langdon is underused as the anthropoid librarian and a swiftly incinerated would-be hero.

A sizeable chunk of the Grace's production budget has been expended on the first revolve I have ever seen on a pub theatre stage. It is used to the utmost, but somehow avoids becoming annoyingly repetitious. As Christmas fringe fare goes, Guards! Guards! is a fine alternative to the seasonal standards; it should also keep the less obsessive of Pratchett fans happy until, as surely must happen soon, a West End producer wakes up to the extent of his bankability.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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