The Solid Gold Cadillac, Garrick Theatre, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Patricia Routledge does a nice line in characters who have reached black-belt level in busybodying. Think of Alan Bennett's "Lady of Letters" or Hyacinth Bucket. So she is good casting as the one-woman awkward squad who takes on a giant corporation in The Solid Gold Cadillac, the 1953 Broadway comedy by George S Kaufman and Howard Teichmann.

With the Enron scandal and the epic (alleged) "corporate kleptocracy" of Lord Black of Crossharbour, and with a recent spate of shareholder rebellions, it might seem an opportune moment to dust down a play that makes fun of fat-cat greed and crooked business practices. But viewing Ian Brown's enjoyable production, with its black-and-white film footage of Fifties New York, you do not need to be Michael Moore to feel that the play deals with a more innocent era when the charges of corruption were not yet being levelled at the highest echelons of government. Even on its own terms, there's something irritatingly roguish about the piece. It's like watching someone try to unblock a stinking drain with a plastic party fork.

The proceedings open with the annual shareholders' meeting of the vast General Products corporation. A portly old lady, Mrs Laura Partridge (Routledge), who is attending for the first time, asks a string of uncomfortable questions, such as how many hours does the chairman of board work for his $175,000 salary? The newly elected officers think they will kick this trouble-maker into touch by absorbing her into the company in the phony role of mediator for other minority stockholders. They underestimate her. Soon she has embarked on a massive correspondence and learns from this that General Products has just forced into bankruptcy one of its own subsidiaries.

Routledge is adept at letting Mrs Partridge's acumen suddenly flash though her rather scatty manner. She has a sharp ear, too, for the magisterial non sequitur: "Oh, but I've never worked in my life, Mr Blessington. I'm an actress." Her theatrical connections and her daffy belief in horoscopes are doubtless meant to add to the charming incongruity of this woman becoming the scourge of corrupt bosses. But I sense condescension on the part of the authors, who seem to feel that we'll need the reassurance of a few showbiz jokes while marooned in this non-Broadway environment. Admittedly, it's hard to resist Roy Hudd in the role of the former company president now in government who refuses, from new-found honesty, to give contracts to his old firm. He, too, it turns out, is stage-struck; and as he launches into a recitation of "Spartacus and the Gladiators", illustrating every syllable with absurd semaphore, you're reminded that Hudd is one of the best Bottoms in the business.

Bumper to bumper, he and Routledge certainly know how to fill a stage, and their mischievous teamwork will give their fans a lot of pleasure. I regret to say that I found the fancifulness of the piece wearing (there's even a voiceover that transmits the narrative as the fairy story of "Cinderella and the Four Ugly Corporation Directors"). But then a genuine attack on capitalism would feel odd in a theatre where they charge £4.80 for a glass of wine.

Booking to 15 January (0870 890 1104)