Friday, June 03, 2011

One Man, Two Guvnors at the National

The woman in the row in front of me appears to be gripped by some kind of near-orgasmic spasm. “Oh my God,” she keeps saying, while fanning her face with her hand. The man sitting to my side is less overtly amused, but I notice his mouth, set so firm at first, has curled itself into a smile and that his shoulders are twitching despite himself. This is a production where the chief currency is laughter and judging by all this barking and hooting, the multifarious music of mirth, it’s hit paydirt.

Richard Bean has transplanted Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters to 1960s Brighton, a bawdy, gaudy world of cardboard cut-out sets and a particularly English strain of smut. Nicholas Hytner’s production is a riotous collage of panto and music hall, the scenes interspersed with musical interludes by sharp-suited skiffle band, The Craze. The cast members occasionally join the band to do a turn on the xylophone or a stint at the microphone; there’s the obligatory bit of cross-dressing and a comedy chase sequence in which the performers ricochet from one side of the set to the other. This is a production at ease with the inherent comedy value of the chest wig; at one point someone even sports a fez.

James Corden plays Francis Henshall, the none-too-bright Harlequin figure who ends up working two jobs. His first master is Jemima Rooper’s Rachel Crabbe, who spends the majority of her time on stage disguised as her dead twin brother Roscoe, the other is Rachel’s lover – and Roscoe’s killer – lanky posh boy Stanley. Unbeknownst to the other, both are trying to extort money from the tight-fisted Charlie the Duck so they can do a bunk to Australia together (Australia comes in for a lot of digs in Bean’s deliciously spiky script) while Francis, caught between them, ties himself in knots as he attempts to run errands for them both while keeping them apart.

Hytner orchestrates the pacing meticulously, balancing moments of (comparative) restraint with those of full-bodied physical comedy. His production works as a bell curve, building to a magnificent middle sequence in which a starving Francis (he has already chewed through an important letter in an effort to ward off his hunger) is forced to serve dinner to both his bosses. To this end he is assisted by Tom Edden’s spectacularly palsied and decrepit waiter, Alfie (think Julie Walters in that skit with the soup, only add a few decades) who is forever being pitched down the stairs.

Bean’s update retains many elements of commedia dell’arte, replete with set social types that are recognisable to a modern audience: the miserly dad, the pompous Latin-spewing lawyer, the swaggering actor. There is also much audience interaction, with Francis nimbly riffing with the front row and occasionally inviting people to join him onstage.

Though the selfish and whining Francis – his character is in fact led by the two masters of groin and belly – is never exactly endearing, Corden’s performance provides a reminder of what a capable comic performer he can be when well directed; he’s quick-witted and responsive as well as energetic, tumbling from armchairs and taking a swing at his own head with a dustbin lid. Hytner meanwhile makes as much use of Corden’s bulk as he does with Oliver Chris’s long-limbed agility as blazer-clad ninny, Stanley. No gesture, however small, is wasted: he strides and thrusts and towers over Jemima Rooper, so that even their embraces have a comic quality; there are times when he appears to be channelling Hugh Laurie in his delivery.

This level of attention to the physical is evident in every performance. Daniel Rigby seems to be forever angling his body towards the audience, as Alan, an actor who speaks only in sonorous declarations with his arms windmilling and his chest permanently puffed, while Edden’s Alfie continues to jitter even when taking his bow. Pleasingly the female characters are also allowed to indulge in the slapstick, with Rooper shuffling around the stage hobbled by her trousers and Susie Toase, as Francis’s Babs Windsor-bosomed would be paramour, Dolly, writhing on the floor in mockery of his earlier tantrum.

After the comedic high-water mark of the middle section, Hytner lets things tail off gradually, tying up all the various plot strands and throwing a few last minute hurdles for Francis’s character before wrapping it all up – naturally – with a song.

Reviewed for Exeunt

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