THE SERVANT OF TWO MASTERS
Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich
Opened 25 September, 1997

Andrew Manley, formerly of Harrogate, takes up the artistic director's reins at Ipswich with a Servant Of Two Masters (in his own adaptation) which demonstrates that he and his company know precisely what is required to power Goldoni's frenzied commedia, but fails to deliver. At the interval, the woman behind me remarked to her companion, "I'm not sure whether I like it or not... I think they're doing too much." I suspect, however, that the opposite is the truer case, and the cast of ten were not in fact doing enough to persuade the lady in question to put her reserve on hold.

Goldoni's play involves disguise, gender confusion, duelling, three separate will-they-won't-they romances and several instances of the wily manservant Truffaldino simultaneously hoodwinking both of the nobles in whose employ, unknown to each other, he has placed himself. In other words, quiet contemplation is not high on the dramatic agenda. Paul Edwards's design hits the right note: with its bright primary colours and skew-whiff geometries, the set looks like Venice as rendered in a 1960s Chuck Jones animation. The costumes are similarly exuberant: Andrew Cryer as Truffaldino is dressed in a barber's ensemble seemingly stitched out of the Italian flag, whilst as Smeraldina, Jax Williams's head is surmounted not so much with a beehive as an oast-house hairdo.

The performances, though, fail to set the audience alight. In short, an air of self-consciousness hangs over the proceedings: it is either the self-consciousness of diffidence, when an actor (Michael Keating as Pantalone, for instance) cannot give himself wholly over to being ludicrous, or the self-consciousness of labour exhibited most visibly by Cryer he tries every device he knows to come over as engagingly daft, but what we feel is the technique rather than the daftness. Chuckles were not unknown among the press night audience, but precious few major guffaws were unloosed; tellingly, even the knob-gags remained limp.

Simon Cryer's music leans heavily on Louis Prima, with numbers including "Mambo Italiano" and "That's Amore"; at one point Andrew Cryer gets into a dress for no apparent reason other than to give him an excuse for a singalong "Que Sera Sera", and the closing rendition of "Buona Sera Signorina" is strangely muted. Where Martin Duncan and Ultz's Nottingham production of the same play in May made one feel that at any moment the tide of ridiculousness would crash off the stage to engulf us all, Manley's version whether through intention or timidity keeps within safe, unthreatening and frankly unexciting limits.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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