Hackney Empire, London E8/touring
Opened 23 March, 1998

When I reviewed Geoffrey Cush's adaptation of Terry Pratchett's eighth Discworld novel Guards! Guards! on its first outing a little over a year ago, I remarked that surely a West End producer must soon wake up to Pratchett's bankability. Once again, I have been proven half-right: the first professional stage production of a Pratchett tale has in fact taken the form of a national tour, which manages to reap the benefits not only of widespread devotion to "Pterry" (who, apparently, is Waterstone's most shoplifted author) but of the continuing cult following for defunct science-fiction TV serial Blake's 7 by casting Paul Darrow in the central role of Captain Vimes.

Darrow enjoys the acerbity of Vimes, and lapses several times into an American drawl for a line or two in either Bogart or Eastwood mode. (Given that the action takes place on the fictional, flat, elephant- and turtle-borne Discworld, in the fictional city of Ankh-Morpork, under threat from a dragon which even the denizens of this fictional city believe is fictional, the chances against the phrase "Do you feel lucky, punk?" cropping up in such surroundings must be, oh, a million to one.) He is particularly skilled at working the audience discreetly an ability especially welcome when, as in the Hackney Empire, the physical space turns out to work surprisingly strongly against the piece.

In fact, seeing Guards! Guards! in a larger space makes both its strengths and its weaknesses more apparent. Although Cush's script sticks to the main story of Pratchett's novel without all the digressions, footnotes and sickeningly enviable turns of wit, it does take a while to get into its stride; thus, although aiming for a mainstream cross-over audience, it paradoxically requires the generosity of aficionados to allow the show to build its own momentum. The other major drawback is the reliance on portraying the gravest danger the dragon entirely through lighting and sound effects, with the result that the climactic aerial engagement of the book is here simply recounted by amazed onlookers; I know a little matter like that never stopped the ancient Greek dramatists, but nevertheless...

For the most part, though, the production (in which director Peter Benedict once again gives himself the role of the main human villain) has a sound sense of its location midway between high-class pantomime and parody detective-thriller and contains a handful of moments of true delight. Iain Stirland's innocent ebullience fills the largest of spaces as Lance-Constable Carrot, a 6'5" dwarf; Roz McCutcheon is amiably Wagnerian as Lady Sybil Ramkin, owner of a home for distressed swamp dragons; and David Brett (late of The Flying Pickets) should take it as a compliment please that he makes a disturbingly plausible Corporal "Nobby" Nobbs, a man whose entire slight frame seems to be made from rather damp dog-ends and whose preferred method of ambulation is the sidle.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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