We booked this on 26th May because the word coming out of the National Theatre was that this was a smasheroony. Five months on and you don’t need me to tell you this is a fantastically funny show with some extraordinary feats of physical comedy. It already boasts a great reputation, and its West End transfer is assured of success. It’s not perfect – but so refreshingly laugh inducing that it doesn’t matter.
Written by Richard Bean (whose The Big Fellah I thought was the best new play of last year), it’s an adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s 1746 Commedia dell’Arte based “Servant of Two Masters”. It’s now set in Brighton in 1963, amongst a criminal underworld of petty thieves and villains getting bumped off. The plot is highly silly but highly entertaining, totally incredible and so enjoyable that you’re completely happy to suspend all reasonable disbelief. It’s a script full of character, chock full with hilarious happenings and good jokes, and I reckon it deserves to earn Mr Bean enough to retire on (although let’s hope he doesn’t).
James Corden’s central performance is astonishingly athletic for a big chap. He plays Francis Hensall, who blunders his way into working for two guvnors who must remain a secret from each other; but of course he confuses their jobs and this leads him up all sorts of farcical garden paths. With terrific comic timing, and a super rapport with the audience whom he both takes into his confidence but also hoodwinks too, he’s simply a joy to watch. At times he appears to come out of character and address the audience directly as himself, in a manner I haven’t seen since the good old days of Eric Sykes and Jimmy Edwards in Big Bad Mouse (if you go back that far). This is very nicely subversive of standard theatrical practice, and feels very refreshing.
The final scene before the interval will probably go down in history as one of the most hilarious ever seen on stage. Suffice it to say, not everything is at seems, but it culminates in one of the most astonishing coups de theatre you’re ever likely to witness. Of the three apparent interactions with members of the audience, throughout the whole play, I’m pretty sure only one is 100% genuine, If You Get My Drift. But it’s all carried off with amazing aplomb, that you only admire James Corden’s performance the more for it.
He has excellent support from a gifted company of comic actors. Oliver Chris is excellent as one of his guvnors, Stanley, an ineffectual toff using posh expletives but who can be a thug when he wants. I also loved the performance of Daniel Rigby as Alan, the wannabe actor fiancé of Claire Lams’ Pauline, the thick daughter of local gangland boss Charlie. His pompous posing makes such an effective contrast with the cockney vagabonds around him, and her innocent stupidity is another great comic element. And then you have the scene stealing performance of Tom Edden as Alfie, the ancient waiter, whose hands seem to have become detached from his arms and whose entire physical presence is a ridiculous delight. If you thought Julie Walters’ “two soups” waitress was past it, you’ve seen nothing yet!
To be honest, the whole cast puts heart and soul into it and there isn’t a weak link. On the matinee performance we saw, Fred Ridgeway, as Charlie, seemed to corpse in almost every scene, so that when other actors came on stage to join in they tended to be thrown of course by his apparent inability to stay calm! Naturally, this only added to the general hilarity.
My only gripe – and it’s minor – is that the music that runs through the show slightly puts the brakes on the activity. The performance starts with the (very enjoyable) skiffle group doing four songs, concert style. Whilst I appreciate it can take a while for everyone to settle down (and it takes an inordinate amount of time at the Alex in Birmingham to get from street to seat) I did feel it was too much. When the fourth song started I asked Mrs Chrisparkle if she thought the show was ever going to get going. The group also sings while the staging is getting changed between scenes. Sometimes, cast members join the group for eccentric solos, which is very funny, but I still felt it made the whole thing a little less fluid than it could be. Very minor gripe though.
This is definitely, as they used to say, going to run and run. A top notch comedy performed by a dream team. I don’t envy the producers’ problem of recasting once this lot have had enough.