Theatre: The Man in the White Suit, Wyndham’s Theatre, West End

It is common practice for theatre producers, looking for their next big show, to scour cinema history for source material.

From Hitchcock classics to more contemporary dramas, a story that has proved popular on screen can often provide a hit on stage as well.

In the case of The Man In The White Suit, currently playing at the Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End, the story has completed a full circle, having started on stage under the title The Flower Within the Bud before transferring to the screen in the shape of the Oscar-winning film with the new title, starring Alec Guinness.

The Man in The White Suit

One of the so-called Ealing comedies, a cherished collection of films that includes The Ladykillers and Passport To Pimlico, The Man In The White Suit has a strong satirical heart.

It follows the story of Sidney Stratton, a young Cambridge graduate who develops an indestructible cloth that repels all dirt. Though hailed initially as a genius, it does not take long for both the management and the unions to realise the impact of the new invention.

With customers never needing to buy replacement clothes, the mill owners’ businesses will fail and the union-members will lose their jobs.

Though shown as opposed on issues relating to workers’ rights, from management to the factory floor there is a gradual realisation by all concerned that the inherent flaws in the everyday cloth already being produced are crucial to the perpetuation of the industry.

In transferring the story back to the stage, writer and director Sean Foley has applied a contemporary spirit of wry humour and nostalgia to the production – stylistically, this owes more to the likes of Kneehigh’s stage version of The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg or Patrick Barlow’s madcap comedy version of The 39 Steps than it does to the original film.

The Man in The White Suit

The action is interspersed with songs by Noah and the Whale front man Charlie Fink, played in the local pub where the majority of the characters meet.

The politics of trade unions fighting for workers’ rights have gone (destroying the irony of the original, which saw both sides of the political divide threatened by a product that would save ordinary people money).

Instead we have two hours of broad humour, stage explosions, sleight of hand and a comedy sequence with Stratton sliding about on the back of a runaway car – this adaptation is about the joy of storytelling, more than the story itself.

Just as the style and spirit of the show has changed from the film, so too have the performances.

The Man in The White Suit

Steven Mangan as Sidney Stratton is more John Cleese than Alec Guinness, less eccentric scientist and more out-of-his-depth everyman.

The performances around Mangan are all turned out, declamatory, larger-than-life.

Along with a host of modern references to apparently absurd technologies (phones without cables?) this starts to feel like The Man In The White Suit: The Pantomime.

That is not necessarily a bad thing, but this is definitely a show for lovers of light comic theatre, not for those seeking to celebrate cherished memories of the film.


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