I was thrilled when the offer came to me to write a stage adaptation of The Lavender Hill Crowd. I have always had a great fondness for Ealing comedies – the warm, witty films made at Ealing Studios in the decade after the Second World War – and The Lavender Hill Crowd remains an absolute favourite.
It’s a widely recognized classic of British cinema, telling the story of a bank clerk who uses his reputation for boredom to pull off a daring gold heist.
With our first performance last week and the script now “locked down”, I find myself pondering the potential privileges and pitfalls of adapting such a classic for the stage.
Maybe I shouldn’t admit such negativity, but my first instinct was to think about ways I could be wrong. I could imagine a version that unnecessarily tinkered with the much-loved plot of the original – trying to put my own stamp on the story, I might find myself trying to fix something that was never broken. And conversely, I could foresee a version that would leave his audience wondering why he went to the theater when he might as well have stayed and watched the movie.
My attempted solution is to preserve the integrity of the story, but to tell it in an entirely theatrical way; we use all the theatrical tricks in the book to bring the film’s many rich characters and locations to life, all while staying in one place. Our aim is to transport our audience to post-war London and Paris while religiously respecting (for those with a classical bent) Aristotle’s units of action, time and place. To say more would be to stray into spoiler territory, but I hope our show will be both respectful and inventive.
The film has a magnificent cast: Alec Guiness, Stanley Holloway, Sid James, even a young Audrey Hepburn. I decided to double down on its ensemble nature and write something that felt really collective, with every actor on stage throughout. I’ve always loved plays that tap into the camaraderie of the theater. The Lavender Hill Crowdwith its central themes of friendship and honor among thieves, seemed fitting for a stage version that was itself a celebration of camaraderie and collaboration.
I was also struck by the abundant charm of the film. Sure, it’s packed with hilarious characters and scenes and comedic settings, but its comedy never feels forced or cheap. The script is almost entirely devoid of gags or punchlines, investing in the story first and foremost. I attempted to replicate the film’s wonderfully light-hearted comedic touch by doing the same, writing a comedy of character, cause and consequence. That way, hopefully, we can achieve at least some of the original’s lovable comedic charisma.
The other big lesson I learned from the original film was to leave room for others to be funny. Just as the script trusts its director and its stars to find the laughter between the lines, I have attempted to deliver a script that embraces the physical and the visual. As a playwright, it’s easy to get caught up in trying to control every aspect of a production from your desk. But with Jeremy Sams (whose production of Noises off destroyed me) as director, and the brilliant Miles Jupp and Justin Edwards in the lead roles, I knew that would be a mistake. Watching the actors rehearse and find pathos and hilarity in unexpected places has been a joy.
Of course, until you put on a play in front of an audience, you don’t know what you’ve got, and when it’s even more comedy. I will no doubt be a nervous wreck waiting to see the response to our best plans.
The Lavender Hill Mob is at the Cheltenham Everyman Theater until October 22, then on tour