THE CABMAN’S PROGRESS
It couldn’t be better placed, here in the arches below Charing Cross station. Under the venerable rules of London licensed cabs – dating back to the 1843 Act – “The Knowledge” that cabbies must have is centred right here. Fifteen thousand streets, within a six-mile radius of this very spot, must be memorized, along with hotels, public buildings and amenities thereon. Then on it goes to the suburbs. Only three in ten succeed in winning their badge; some take years, riding mopeds on the 468 prescribed runs (often at night or in the bleak dawn, around a day job). It is unique in the world.
So here at its centre, and in a year when the cheapskate, exploitative dark empire of Uber is fast eroding it, this is the place for a double act of commemoration. Jack Rosenthal’s well-loved film, set in 1979, has been adapted by Simon Black into theatrical shape and retains all the dry gentle wit, empathy and humane sweetness of the man. His widow, Maureen Lipman, directs it. So that’s one commemoration; the other is of the cabbies themselves. Who are still with us, surviving the age of vampiric digital minicabs and the customer parsimony which insouciantly drives costs and lesser incomes down. . It isn’t a storming, life-changing play, but it is an honest slice of life and in the second hour, surprisingly satisfying.
Nicolai Hart-Hansen’s nicely conceived set has traffic-lights, street signs, and three sparse domestic interiors below the high terrifying platform of the examiner Mr Burgess’ office, complete with the legendary toy parrot and bonsai tree. Up there Steven Pacey presides as an infuriating, whimsically bullying, ferretily- schoolmasterly figure (no surprise that the interval music includes PInk Floysd The Wall , with its “dark sarcasms”) .At the end of Act 1 Lipman gives us a nice coup de theatre as the cast’s voices become an echoing cacophony of streets, squares, turnings, fire stations , tunnels and warnings while the third candidate panics on the stairs. The evocation of mental stress jars your very teeth.
We are following the candidates, each with their domestic setting, some more finely drawn than others but all given typical Rosenthal sympathy. There’s James Alexandrou’s swaggering Gordon with his fed-up wife, Ben Caplan’s Ted, from a dynasty of Jewish cabbies, Louise Callagnan as a pioneering , tough-edged young woman candidate (this is 1979, remember) . Above all there’s young Fabian Frankel, fresh out of Lamda, as the feckless, jobless, unconfident Chris whose girlfriend (Alice Felgate) buys him a moped and nags him to do The Knowledge and make something of himself.
Their trajectory is the most interesting, as Chris, at first despairing of himself, gradually finds steely resolve until his girl, dismayed, realizes that as her role vanishes their relationship no longer works. Frankel does this butterfly emergence very well indeed, moving from petulance to resolve and finally to a warm self-amazement which turns your heart over. Ben Caplan and Jenna Augen as the Jewish pair carry their trajectory particularly well too.
And even Burgess – after enraging us and the candidates equally with his distraction techniques and evocation of awful punters during the bruising examinations – has a moment of sweet humanity. He was a cabbie too, and knows the horror of ”people..they mumble, can’t hear you, don’t know where they’re going..” But as Callagnan’s Miss Staveley says, struggling with her rage at Burgess’ demonstration of the sexual baiting she will get, “I always have to be the better man, Sir”. That, and young Frankel, and long gratitude to our unique cabbies, won the fourth mouse.
I was going to take the Tube afterwards, but took a cab instead. In tribute.
box office 020 7930 5868 to 11 Nov