Charing Cross Theatre, London – until 11 November 2017
It’s one of the hardest tests to pass – 70% of people fail or drop out. It requires an intricate understanding of one of the most complicated cities in the world, remembering street names and landmarks and directions more tangled than any other cosmopolitan jungle. The Knowledge is the pride of a black cab driver and the pressure to pass the test can be the undoing of many a person.
Jack Rosenthal and Simon Block’s script is a keen observation on how this ordeal takes over the lives of those trying to master it, in a time when knowledge of The Knowledge was at its peak. It’s 1979, the height of unemployment and the turnover from Labour to Conservative government under Thatcher’s watchful eye. Having a job was considered lucky, so to be a cab driver with such information at your fingertips was highly sought after. Maureen Lipman’s direction paints a witty sitcom style of production, placing focus on the individuals that desperately want to make something of themselves. But it doesn’t quite give context to the scene of the times – The Knowledge feels slightly disconnected from its London roots.
Instructor and examiner Burgess (Steven Pacey) takes his seat, constantly present and watching the unsuspecting new recruits. Nicolai Hart-Hansen’s set cleverly positions him in the seat of power, an upstage mezzanine that awards Burgess a vigilant vantage-point without disturbing the scenes underneath, the lives of the plebeians trying to achieve a green badge status. Pacey is the stand-out performance in The Knowledge too – eccentric and quirky, he wouldn’t feel out of place as a guest in Fawlty Towers. Pacey complements Lipman’s direction with both wit and depth, understanding the detailed portrayal of his character and presenting infectious levels of fun throughout his performance.
The recruits in training feel more pastiche however. Amid Leigh Porter’s traffic lights that pepper the set without pulling focus, the lives of the couples unfold and breakdown as The Knowledge strips them of the ability to concentrate on anything else – it isn’t everything, but it is all consuming. Ted (Ben Caplan) and Val (Jenna Augen) are the most comfortable in their relationship, a natural dynamic when on stage together. Layabout and quitter Chris (Fabian Frankel) and confident girlfriend Janet (Alice Felgate) are the central couple, her forcing him to try and make something of himself – but these personalities feel overly simplified, lacking in subtext or anything other than a superficial set of reactions.
Man-about-town Gordon (James Alexandrou) is the most interesting of the new recruits, Alexandrou acting the Cockney geezer comfortably. There’s a conflict constantly brewing inside this character, a rage that threatens to explode out at any given moment that Alexandrou conveys with ease.
But in the end, when tensions do boil over – Gordon (Alexandrou) explodes, Chris (Frankel) and Janet (Felgate) break apart and Ted (Caplan) breaks down – the impact is diminished because it hasn’t been sufficiently built up throughout the remainder of the play. Lipman’s atmosphere merrily meanders along without the audience feeling the pressure of the situation, the mountain that must be climbed and the strain that it inevitably brings on even the strongest of relationships.
The Knowledge ends all too predictably, the 70% dropout rate taking full effect. Rosenthal and Block’s script broaches an interesting subject, but overall the production lacks the depth of a truly memorable show. It’s a pleasant couple of hours, but like many of the backstreets in inner London, it’s not something that will stick in the audience’s memory for too long.