Charing Cross Theatre, London
Way back in 1979, scriptwriter Jack Rosenthal first conceived The Knowledge as a TV drama.
Following the mishaps and misfortunes of a brave bunch of men and women attempting to master The Knowledge of London – the world’s toughest and most terrifying taxi exams – it proved to be a great hit with audiences and has since inspired new generations of aspiring cabbies to learn hundreds of ‘runs’ (routes) and thousands of ‘points’ (landmarks) within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross.
Now The Knowledge has been adapted for the stage by Simon Block and directed by Rosenthal’s widow Maureen Lipman and what a pleasure it turns out to be. The 1979 setting has been retained and although many of the social attitudes (especially about women) are comically outdated, a lot of what plays out on stage is as fresh and as funny and as relevant as when it was first written.
The drama follows the struggles and trials of Gordon (James Alexandrou), Ted (Ben Caplan), Miss Staveley (Louise Callaghan) and Chris (Fabien Frankel) as they try to get to grips with learning how to get from A to B with no wrong turns.
At home, their wives and girlfriends try to be supportive while putting up with bad tempers, hissy fits and late nights out learning the runs. And the person holding all of their fates in his hands is eccentric perfectionist Mr Burgess (the vampire, played with utter gusto by Steven Pacey), the Knowledge of London examiner. He will brook no stuttering, forgive no slip-up and adheres to the rules (and the correct routes) no matter what. As Gordon tells Chris ‘he will suck you dry’.
Laid bare here are all our most basic fears and phobias – of failure, of being ridiculed, of letting the side down, of just not cutting the mustard.
While Gordon is a cocky chauvinist and Ted a dedicated family man, it is the relationship between Chris, his forthright girlfriend Janet (Alice Felgate) and with the nature of The Knowledge itself that gives most pleasure. Unemployed, unfocused Chris just doesn’t believe he’ll ever get his taxi driver’s licence. But Janet’s chivvying, Mr Burgess’s worst school-masterly outbursts and Chris’s own growing fascination with what he’s learning are what give the play its most dynamic moments.
Within the intimate confines of the Charing Cross theatre, on a pared-down set where Mr Burgess’s examination room is the central focus, you really do feel a part of all these characters’ lives. And when, finally, there is success among the disappointments, it feels all the sweeter for the struggles you have witnessed.
The Knowledge plays at the Charing Cross theatre until 11 November.