Long before the days of Google maps and Satnavs, decades before Uber was even a twinkle in CEO Travis Kalanick’s eye, and before we had access to the entire world via an oblong in our pocket – London cabbies had a monumental task on the way to getting their green badge. The Knowledge. Listed in the ‘blue book’ given to all would-be cabbies, are over 300 runs, known routes to and from from various places in London. To gain the green badge, your license to become a London Black Cab Driver, you must learn these runs by heart. The Knowledge follows four applicants in 1979 as they begin their process of learning the knowledge.
Directed by Maureen Lipman, and written by her late husband Jack Rosenthal, The Knowledge is a throwback to a period like my generation has never known. There is an art to what Gordon (James Alexandrou), Brenda (Celine Abrahams), Ted (Ben Caplan) and Chris (Fabian Frankel) are doing. Who has the patience today to attempt to commit that many routes to memory? Surely not as many as in the late 70’s, not when now, at the touch of a button, we can know every route to our destination that exists, how to avoid traffic, tolls, roadworks, the lot. The Knowledge sheds light on a dying trade, one that I would now be sad to see go.
In an enviously retro costume design of flared jeans, brown boots and leather jackets by Jonathan Lipman, the cast are mostly excellent. Abrahams as Brenda, surprisingly, offers a strong female voice in a world primarily governed by men. Steven Pacey excels as Mr. Burgess, the group’s advisor and tester, and with his gentlemanly manner, stiff upper lip and just a hint of lunacy, he steals the show. Alice Felgate as Janet and Frankel as her boyfriend Chris are also favourites. Chris is a little slow and self-conscious, but Janet’s unwavering support, and belief in him and his capacity to pass the knowledge, is truly lovely to watch.
Michael Chance, who plays a Cabbie, Football Supporter, and also an ‘Arab tourist’ seems a strange casting choice as he bounds onstage in a thobe and keffiyeh, delivering a few gags. It seems it might have been easier to just cast a man of Arab ethnicity to play the roles, and avoid the bad taste left in your mouth as he leaves stage shouting about the Marks and Spencer’s on Oxford Street sporting a thoroughly dodgy vaguely ethnic accent.
Besides that, The Knowledge is a nostalgic nugget of time, and begins to show us the sheer amount of hard graft it takes to become a cabbie. Some take years to pass the knowledge, and it is made clear that the only reason one must have to stick out such an arduous process is a sheer love of the game. It is a warming piece, full of real working-class Londoners who offer authentic London heart & humour. A relic of times been and gone, The Knowledge makes me yearn for days I’ve never seen – and has put me off Uber for life.
The Knowledge is playing at Charing Cross Theatre until November 10.
Photo: Tristram Kenton