Proper end of the pier stuff at the National Theatre, where Richard Bean has transposed Carlo Goldoni’s commedia del’arte classic Servant to Two Masters to 1960s Brighton. The result is an old-fashioned cocktail of wordplay and slapstick given enough of a contemporary twist to survive today’s standard-issue cynicism. Just.
Bean has stuck faithfully to Goldoni’s plot, managing to retain credibility in a long-lost system of service by using enduring hierarchies of both gangland and class. So harlequin’s hip replacement, Francis Henshall (James Corden), a failed skiffle player turned opportunistic odd-job man, winds up both as minder to miniature mobster Rosco Crabbe and fag to former public schoolboy Stanley Stubbers. Only Rosco is, of course, Stanley’s beau Rachel, disguised as her brother in order to claim the dowry he was due before his death, thus interrupts the engagement of Charlie ‘The Duck’ Clench’s daughter to local amateur thesp Alan Dangle and spreading confusion through the seaside town.
Commedia is, like end of the pier, essentially a structured series of turns (here, we get front-curtain musical numbers from each of the cast) and Goldoni’s servant will always be best when pulled in two directions by conflicting and easily confusable tasks. Corden, then, is perfectly cast as the hapless go-between. Here, he’s doing what he does best: showing off. Only he’s doing it within a framework that not only gives him permission and encouragement, but also places him at the bottom of the social heap. Suddenly, he’s all winning charm; mischievous cheek and pluck sits where we’re used to bare-faced arrogance and puffery. In fact, it’s enough to gloss over his unexpected mistiming: on press night, his slow turns were a tad too quick, his snap-backs, a touch sluggish.
The same might be said of Nicholas Hytner’s production, which can’t always conjure the requisite anarchic momentum of truly great farce, where everything seems to teeter precariously on the brink of chaos and collapse.
Here, the famous dinner scene serves as an example of perfection. With Corden whipping back and forth like Willow Smith’s hair, Bean introduces an 87-year-old waiter, Alfie, to get caught in the culinary crossfire. Looking like Michael Heseltine escaped from a retirement home, Tom Edden steals the scene, if not the show; repeatedly plummeting down the stairs, only to return with ever more wobbly dishes. Without Alfie and his various conditions (Edden seems to have added dementia, Bells-Palsey and Parkinsons to Alfie’s pacemaker), however, Corden’s conundrums are too straightforward, even if ingeniously solved.
Were the humour of a different ilk, pace might not be such an issue, but Bean is trading on the obvious and occasionally groan-worthy. It’s vintage stuff, a naughty seaside postcard or Punch cartoon; all fisticuffs and innuendo. The cast, too, find themselves returning to a particular trick: as Stanley, Oliver Chris must blast out idiosyncratic exclamations in a Hugh Laurie/Rik Mayall tone, where Daniel Rigby’s Alan gazes middle distance, squeaks his cod-Shakespeare and mangles his metaphors. Time and again, Bean takes us down the flowery language of the original, only to undercut it with a crudely modern idiom: I wondered lonely as a twat, sort of thing. It’s classily done, Bean’s choice phrases have enough panache to keep us laughing, but he comes dangerously close to letting us get one step ahead. As such, laughter is as often given as it is forced out of us.
That vintage quality is embraced and enhanced by Mark Thompson’s toybox theatre, which occasionally transcends its own (deliberate) flimsiness for a crisp, cartoonish snapshot of Brighton’s piers or the Cricketers’ Arms (the pub that pops up in Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock).
Incidentally, beneath all the humour, there are shades of something cleverer going on, though admittedly not enough to count as anything more than window dressing. By giving his harlequin or zanni figure, Truffaldino, a shot at happiness alongside his supposed betters, Goldoni went some way to revolutionising commedia. Bean follows suit with his 1960s setting: not only do we get constant class friction and a new racial diversity, Suzie Toase’s book-keeper Dolly (the very spit of Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks) harps on about post-war sexual equality, predicting world peace when the first female PM takes power, just as Rigby’s Alan casts an eye towards aesthetic overhaul. ‘It’s 1963,’ he says, ‘and there’s a bloody revolution in the theatre and angry young men are writing plays about Alans’.
This, of course, isn’t one of them, but it’s an absolute peach, sure to Brighton up your day.