Theatre Preview: Only Fools and Horses, Theatre Royal, Haymarket
PUBLISHED: 11:36 25 January 2019
Fast Show writer and comedian Paul Whitehouse’s latest venture is bringing TV classic Only Fools and Horses to the Stage
Paul Whitehouse is on a revolving stage when we hook up on the phone.
The Fast Show star is in the grandiose surroundings of the Theatre Royal Haymarket, where he’s about to see the opening of his musical tribute to Only Fools And Horses. No doubt that revolve will soon be carrying the Trotters’ yellow three-wheeler, but neither the genre nor surroundings are the usual haunt of the self-effacing Highgate comedian, who says dipping his toe into the risky waters of musical theatre felt “legitimised” by Only Fools creator John Sullivan.
“I don’t think I would I have considered it if it had not been his vision and his last project before his untimely death,” says Whitehouse, who was approached by Sulllivan’s son Jim to finish the script and songs with Chas Hodges of Chas and Dave fame.
Sullivan, who died of pneumonia in 2011, had only written one song, so it was left to the duo to put together a rosta of 20 numbers, including the two familiar theme tunes.
Whitehouse, who also plays Grandad, was a fan of the series “right from the early days.”
Set on a Peckham housing estate, it centres around market trader Del Boy Trotter and family, and ran for more than 20 years, and seven series.
“It hadn’t been on TV since 2003 and he probably felt it was time to do something else with it,” speculates Whitehouse, who says Hodges’ death last September gave them even more reason to get this celebratory mix of music hall, rock n roll, and pub singalong over the line.
“Chas and Dave were meant to sing the original theme song, but on the day of recording they found out Aint No Pleasing You was massive and John Sullivan did it himself,” explains Whitehouse. “Me and Chas met up and got along, we both support Spurs and came from the same area. (Enfield) I had a couple of ideas for songs that were not far off Chas and Dave in style, like Grandad lamenting where his old Cockney mates are now. After Chas met his own untimely end it’s been especially poignant for Jim, me and Chas’ family to see this through and continue the legacy.”
Having never written a musical, Whitehouse had help from seasoned experts with his fledgling ideas. “It’s not Sondheim. It’s a feelgood musical celebration, not just of Only Fools but of London and the working class life they lead. What’s interesting is a lot of the songs came out of the story or moved on the plot rather than being shoe-horned in. A lot of it is Music Hall, knees-up music, funny and touching rather like Only Fools.”
Whitehouse thinks the show endured because it had “heart”.
“It was poignant and tender but didn’t indulge in self pity. For all his bluster and bravado, Del was qute a softie, Although he exploits his kid brother, he was father, mother and protector to Rodney as well caring for Grandad who was quite a vulnerable character.
“The warmth is what I tried to keep uppermost. It was never afraid to dip its toe into the lake of sentimentality but before it emptied into the sea of mawkishness, they would pull the rug from under you with a joke.”
Adding in the element of song, he concedes, has the potential to be “quite manipulative”.
“A couple of notes in the right sequence will make you cry – let’s hope we get them in the right order.”
Like many of Whitehouse’s comic characters, Sullivan’s writing touched on class snobbery and aspiration.
“The one real benefit of the class system in this country has been the opportunity for a lot of comedy - to laugh at the upper working and middle classes,” says Whitehouse, who dropped out of University and worked as a plasterer before hooking up with Harry Enfield in the early 80s.
“Del for all his aspiration, loves the market life. He’s a performer and it’s his stage. A lot of its appeal is the working class core to it, and the idea that they are trapped together in this world they can’t get out of. It’s about the struggle, and once they achieve that goal, the story is over.”
Set in the 80s, the musical nods to Peckham’s gentrification; Trigger has a vision of 20 years in the future when he gazes into a crystal ball and sees “every house owner is a millionaire and you can’t move for artisan bakeries”.
The featherlight plot centres around love and relationships including Rodney’s wedding to Cassandra and Del Boy’s midlife crisis.
“He’s at a crossroads with Grandad coming to the end of his life, he’s going nowhere fast and is thinking what am I going to do?”
Whitehouse admits the cast have “ big shoes to fill,” taking on iconic roles played by the likes of David Jason and Nicholas Lyndhurst that are “embedded in the national consciousness”.
“You can’t underestimate how brilliant those actors were and how much they contributed to the success of the series. It’s daunting for us to follow in their footsteps, but by the same token we see it as an opportunity. John Sullivan’s characters are believable, funny, and true and if something has stood the test of time, there’s a long tradition in theatre of different actors playing those characters. That’s what actors do.”
He and fellow comic Bob Mortimer have just made a second series of award-nominated TV show Gone Fishing in which Whitehouse teaches his friend angling while philosophising about life after major heath scares; a triple heart bypass for Mortimer and stents for him.
“Given all the things we’ve gone through and that we explore a lot of health issues it seemed a privilege to still be working and extremely gratifying that it has done well. Maybe stupidly we thought it would make a good programme to have us on the riverbank on a beautiful day talking about something serious and life threatening but it works for the very good and simple reason that it’s very genuine and real. We’re usually quite guarded talking about ourselves in the public arena, but it felt ok there to let it go..”
But have the scares made him more likely to take risks - say turning an iconic TV series into a famously tricky medium like a musical? “Many nights I’ve woken up at 3am wondering ‘what on earth have I done?’ But other times I’d wake up and think: ‘I’ve got a great line I can put in there.’ I don’t think: ‘I must challenge myself,’ but maybe subconsciously somewhere, after going through a few health scares you wonder, not to get too melodramatic, nothing ventured nothing gained.”
At The Theatre Royal Haymarket from February 9.