THE CUCUMBER MAN
West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
Opened 6 May, 1998

Adaptor/director Michael Birch has now done for the third of David Nobbs's novels about Henry Pratt what he previously did for the first two, Second From Last In The Sack Race and Pratt Of The Argus. However, where those two books and plays between them scarcely covered the first twenty years of Henry's life, Birch and his cast of six find with The Cucumber Man that they have to get through four decades in two and a half hours of playing time.

Characters and props enter on the stage revolve beneath a vast, mock-marble monolith consisting of the words "HENRY PRATT". It is all very well to take the mickey, as designer Norman Coates does, out of Henry's desire to make some kind of mark, but as he skitters through a brace of failed marriages and a career in the Cucumber Marketing Board, the scenes of his life follow one another in a chronicle of non-achievement, a kind of Pooterish picaresque.

The evening's driving conceit is that of our watching the actors (other than Kieron Forsyth, who remains Henry throughout) leaping between ten or so characters of varying degrees of principality each: so, for instance, Claude Close switches between Henry's shady, Richard Griffiths-esque uncle, his Boy Scout son, his spluttering ex-father-in-law and a miscellaneous nun. Willie Ross is particularly delightful in this respect, his lived-in face suggesting even at its straightest that at any moment he may unleash a prize gurn.

In some respects, Mic Pool's sound design is as witty a commentary on the period 1957-present as any of the actual business onstage: each scene is introduced with a montage of audio news footage and contemporary music, assembled (thanks to Rebecca Gutierrez's archive research) with all the spiky mordancy of BBC TV's The Rock'n'Roll Years at its gadfly best. (Yes, that really was a snippet of 16-year-old William Hague's conference speech introducing a mid-Seventies scene.) But the Pratt saga itself, although possessed of a pleasing minor-key modulation, just is not enough to hold the attention in a theatrical milieu, and certainly not throughout a full-length evening. Bite-sized munchies make fine snacks, but pall a bit when served up at every course.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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