This month, Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat moors up at Cambridge Arts Theatre in a vivacious new adaptation of this quintessentially British comedy. In an attempt to escape the stresses of city life, three friends, J, Harris and George, accompanied by their faithful canine companion Montmorency, decide to take to the river in order to relax and rejuvenate. The holiday, however, quickly unravels and descends into chaos.
The show features live music, dancing and even a working pub to recreate that true music-hall spirit. On the eve of opening night in Cambridge, I joined the cast aboard a Scudamores punt to find out more.
Despite weeks of pretending to muck about in boats, it’s their first real river trip together and David Partridge, Michael Rouse and Tom Hackney don’t look at all out of place in their blazers, boaters and pipes as we glide past King’s College Chapel.
A ripping yarn of youthful friendship, mischief and folly, Jerome’s classic comedy is one of the very cornerstones of British comedy, as Tom explains: “In Three Men in a Boat you really notice its influence on British comedy. It’s like reading a bit of a Monty Python sketch or a scene from The Young Ones. You wouldn’t believe it’s over 100 years old. It’s almost the forefather of that very British style of humour that we do so well. Without it I dare say we wouldn’t have had the Pythons or Morecambe and Wise.”
Tom, in the boater, plays Harris, “a lover of all things cheese and food-related,” Michael (with the beard) is the ladies man of the group while David plays Jerome, who takes charge of the trip. “He’s quite bossy and pompous,” says David, “and the other two never pass up on the opportunity to mock him.”
So how do these young Victorian bucks decide come to embark on their upstream adventure? David: “We’re sitting around one evening and decide what we can do to shake off this funk we’re in, then George hits upon the idea of going up river. It’s a free adaptation,” he continues. “There are a few anachronistic 21st century jokes and we kind of dip in and out of character. The idea is that we’re relaying this tale of a journey we took to a group of invited people: i.e the audience.”
“The audience are very much part of the story,” agrees Michael, trying to pet a friendly mallard who’s swum up alongside us. “It’s very playful and a lot of fun. And it’s very physical, there’s lots of slapstick.”
Music is an integral part of the show, provided by a live on-stage pianist. “We have Nelly on the piano playing the old music hall tunes, Any Old Iron, that sort of thing,” says David.
“It’s out and out daft. We’re a definite type of gent that you don’t see around much these days, but are very nice to play. We just got these pipes this morning by the way,” he adds. “We’ve been using marker pens until now. But they’re quite satisfying – I like the curve of the stem. I could get used to it.”
At this point, incidentally, our punt tout chips in to tell us he actually owns and smokes a pipe. Only in Cambridge.
The boys are looking forward to tonight’s show, especially Tom who’s family will be making an appearance. “My family live nearby and though I’ve never been in a show here I’ve been to see plays at the Arts Theatre all my life. So it’s really great to be finally performing here.”
Adds David: “It’s been quite a whirlwind rehearsal process; we only got together after Christmas. The play has been on before, but with a different cast, and we can’t wait to get out in front of an audience.”
So, I ask, as we moor up, who do they think would be the most use on a real life boating holiday? Tom replies: “Oh, we’d all be equally useless.”
:: Three Men in a Boat runs at Cambridge Arts Theatre 21-24 January, 7.45pm. Tickets from £15.