Riot of comedy and theatrical invention

David Partridge, Michael Rouse and Tom Hackney in Three Men In A Boat. Photograph byt Jack Ladenburg SUS-150503-092636001
David Partridge, Michael Rouse and Tom Hackney in Three Men In A Boat. Photograph byt Jack Ladenburg SUS-150503-092636001

A funny thing happened at the Devonshire Park this week (writes Kevin Anderson). I went to a gentle inoffensive Wednesday matinee, and it turned into a riot of comedy and theatrical invention.

Three Men in a Boat is one of the funniest books ever written, but translating its episodic nature to the stage is tricky.

The Original Theatre Company set the play in a riverside pub and let their tales unfold. They make the stage as wide and deep as the Devonshire Park will permit – a bit underlit, perhaps, but warm and mellowed.

But what begins as quite naturalistic theatre is about to veer off in all directions.

It’s quite a slow burner at first: three pals in blazers and boaters and a classic tale of jaunts and japes, harmless and rather coy. Twenty minutes in, with the audience just getting comfy, the physical theatre starts to creep up on you.

Physical theatre? You know the sort of thing. Upturned tables turning into barges and railway carriages. Actors tossing their own character aside and grabbing a new one. Mime and gesture creating whole new scenes. A hamper full of hats for some improvised characterisation by headgear.

This extravagantly talented cast do the lot – brilliantly, imaginatively, exhaustingly.

The performance careers along with an abandon that seems almost anarchic but is actually expertly judged and controlled.

The original tale of three chums on the river does get a bit lost in the process, but nobody minds in the least.

The actors number just four, even if it feels like 44.

David Partridge is J – yes, that’s just a J – and has a lovely pompous self-parody as the man behind the plan.

Michael Rouse’s George is charmingly flamboyant, and sings a mesmerising version of the Sussex folk song My Love Has Gone.

Tom Hackney plays Harris, the third of the chums, with cheerful flippancy.

And Anna Westlake’s Nelly, the wordless pianist, is sublime. She alternates little wisps of Debussy or Dvorak with a glorious range of body language from outraged to caustic to long-suffering.

Don’t expect gravitas or deep insights. In fact, leave any expectations in the foyer and prepare for surprises. It’s an unashamed pleasure.

Three Men in a Boat continues at The Devonshire Park Theatre until Saturday, March 7 - call 01323 412000.