Reviewing an RSC production of A Servant Of Two Masters
in 2000, I remarked that two and three-quarter hours is unconscionably long for a commedia dell’Arte
play. The NT’s version runs for three, including a clutch of pre-show
skiffle numbers and several more to cover (with room to spare) scene
changes, sometimes even incorporating “spesh” solos by principal
members of the cast playing, say, xylophone or tuned motor horns.
Bean’s adaptation has all the comic fizz one expects from that writer:
it is packed with one-liners, running gags, callbacks and even a
lecturette on that great theatrical trope, identical twins of different
sexes. The protagonist, called Truffaldino in Carlo Goldoni’s 1743
original, is now Francis Henshall, who finds himself accidentally
employed as minder and manservant in 1963 Brighton by both Roscoe
Crabbe, an East End hoodlum in town to marry a former associate’s
daughter, and Stanley Stubbers, an upper-class twit in love with
Roscoe’s twin sister Rachel and preparing to flee the country with her
because he has murdered, er, Roscoe… Naturally, the Roscoe who is
Francis’s first guvnor is Rachel in disguise (twins of… yes, OK);
naturally, neither guvnor knows of the other; naturally, in fact,
hardly anybody knows anything, least of all the late Roscoe’s fiancée
whose mantra is “I don’t understand”.
James Corden, back on stage at the National for the first time since the 2004 première of The History Boys
works his character and the audience well (although on press night he
seemed genuinely thrown when his request to us for a sandwich yielded
positive results). He has energy and commitment; what he lacks, and
indeed Nicholas Hytner’s production lacks throughout, is pace and
crispness of action. The centrepiece of the play is a routine in which
Truffaldino/Francis serves multi-course meals simultaneously to both
guvnors in opposite wings whilst trying to grab some of the food for
himself. In the 25 minutes of this episode, the steaks may increase but
the stakes do not, so to speak; the speed and frenzy do not build
nearly enough, despite some excellent prat-falling from Tom Edden as a
doddery old waiter.
switches nicely between menace and femininity as guvnor number one, and
Oliver Chris has a pearl of a part as nice-but-dim guvnor number two.
There is never a dull moment in the evening. It’s just that there’s too
damn much of it.
Written for the Financial