Only Fools and Horses; The Musical

Rating: 4

By Richard Barber

Only Fools and Horses, one of the biggest TV comedy hits ever, was working on a musical version when, sadly, he died in 2011. But the project survived in the hands of his son, Jim, and Paul Whitehouse, no small-screen slouch himself.

Now it’s arrived at the curiously inappropriate Theatre Royal Haymarket, the story of the get-rich-quick Trotters from Peckham. And it’s pretty much bombproof, all the best lines and set pieces culled from 40 hours of 64 episodes, recreated for the West End stage.

Who could resist Del Boy’s mangling of the English language, a man who starts telephone conversations by saying, ‘Au revoir,’ or who claims his encyclopedic knowledge makes his mind like a ‘suppository’? Tom Bennett is a revelation in the role created by David Jason. Although he looks a lot like him, this is no lazy impersonation but a clever channelling of what Jason brought to the part – all the cheeky chappie surface chutzpah masking an underlying vulnerability. He can sing and dance, too, as demonstrated in Mange Tout, a lovely soft shoe shuffle, complete with topper and cane.

The story, such as it is, revolves around the upcoming wedding of Del’s younger brother Rodney (Ryan Hutton) to Cassandra (Pippa Duffy) and whether or not he can rustle up the final two grand for a deposit on a flat. There’s a simultaneous love story between Del and Raquel (a terrific turn from a sweet-singing Dianne Pilkington), a failed actress and part-time strip-o-gram girl.

Throw in upwardly mobile couple Marlene and Boycie (Samantha Seager and Jeff Nicholson) and a terminally dim-witted Trigger (Peter Baker, the doppelgänger of the late Roger Lloyd Pack) and you’ve got all your ducks in a row.

The music is pretty good, too, a clutch of numbers from the pen of the late, lamented Chas Hodges, one half of Chas and Dave, co-written with Paul Whitehouse – who brings to his version of Grandad just the right blend of recalcitrant wistfulness. The recurring musical theme is mockney knees-up, with a snatch of Any Old Iron thrown in for good measure. The songbook exceptions are Bill Withers’ Lovely Day and Simply Red’s Holding Back the Years, both of which fit the action comfortably.

Yes, the first half is tighter than the second, which loses its way a bit and fails to come to a satisfying climax. But this is a smashing show under Caroline Jay Ranger’s nimble direction, an evening of fun, laughter and welcome nostalgia. Recommended. ν

- Until 31 August at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London SW1Y: 020-7930 8800,