Originally produced by London’s National Theatre of Great Britain back in 2012 and later brought to Broadway’s Music Box Theatre the same year, this side-splitting farce was available, free of charge, on the small screen via YouTube.
As if from a front-row seat, you’d be seeing a live performance of this major hit, filmed before a London audience.
Adapted by playwright Richard Bean from the 1746 commedia dell’arte classic “The Servant of Two Masters” by Carlo Goldoni, this hilarious version is set in 1963, in the rather tacky seaside town of Brighton. A dowdy assortment of characters follow their dreams, democratically divided between love and money, under Nicholas Hytner’s fervent yet disciplined direction.
Hytner is aided and abetted by a top-drawer cast, headed by young scalawag farceur James Corden. Corden, who starred in Hytner’s Broadway and film productions of “The History Boys” a few years back, wraps the audience around his pudgy finger.
Corden’s character Francis Henshall is a gofer serving wealthy patrons: govnors (governors). At first, he has only one client, Rachel Crabbe (Jemima Rooper), impersonating her recently murdered twin brother, Roscoe Crabbe (never seen).
The tough-strutting Rachel is here to collect money owed her brother by Brighton-fringe-underworld-type Charlie “the Duck” Clench (Fred Ridgeway), a rather good-natured, gentle soul. Charlie had promised his vapid daughter Pauline (Claire Lams) to Roscoe, not realizing he’s deceased. But Pauline insists she’s in love with aspiring thespian Alan Dangle (Daniel Rigby), who emotes and poses spontaneously whenever he gets the chance.
Never mind the convoluted plot. Henshall, in his slightly loud plaid suit (courtesy of terrific set-and-costume designer Mark Thompson) is the true center of attention. He muses about his inner conflict between the need for food and love. Now he craves food and addresses the audience, pleading for a sandwich. When someone offers an unappetizing humus sandwich, Henshall alternates between being repelled and droolingly grabbing for it.
Suddenly, he’s interrupted by the arrival of Stanley Stubbers (Oliver Chris), a phoney snob who has fled to Brighton to lie low after murdering, either on purpose or by chance, the aforementioned Roscoe. Stubbers immediately hires Henshall to take charge of his oversized trunk. Now Henshall has two masters. Things are looking up.
The superbly slapstick trunk sequence features Henshall persuading two stalwart audience members to carry the weighty item into a nearby pub. Stubbers has just registered at the pub, where, unbeknownst to him, Rachel has also registered. She is in love with him despite his having murdered her brother. After all, love conquers all, right?
The dinner scene closing the first act is arguably the set piece of the entire show. Henshall engineers the proceedings, remarkably managing to have both Rachel and Stubbers served their meal without knowing of the other’s presence.
And with outrageous aplomb, Alfie (Tom Edden)—an 87-year-old, stooped-over waiter, with tremors and a malfunctioning artificial heart—performs such physical shtick as would have had Charlie Chaplin look to his laurels. (Credited with choreographing the brilliant physical comedy scenes is Cal McCrystal.)
Act 2 gives Henshall the opportunity to pursue his romantic desires, in the person of Dolly (Suzie Toase), Charlie Clench’s impossibly curvaceous bookkeeper. Smitten, Henshall impulsively invites Dolly to spend a week with him in Majorca. But Dolly insists on a date first. When Henshall inquires of the audience as to what would constitute a good first date, several women simultaneously shout out an answer, which I won’t divulge here. It would spoil your fun.
Of course, all is sorted out at the end.
Music happily envelops the entire production, with original songs by Grant Olding. A four-piece skiffle combo called The Craze ushers the audience to their seats and plays brief, zippy interludes during scene changes. Corden himself contributes a snappy xylophone segment.
The production has the feel of British music hall or old vaudeville; the audience here seems a part of the action, with Corden’s consummate skills making it all work neatly.
The National Theatre of Great Britain offered a statement preceding the performance, to the effect that the present pandemic has temporarily closed their theaters, making inroads on their profits. Thus, anyone who wishes can make a contribution to their organization, details being offered onscreen.
It is without doubt a worthy cause. This screening, which was available in early April, resulted in tens of thousands of viewer hits.
The company will stream a different performance for free from 7 p.m. UK time (2 p.m. EST) every week, and then it will be available on demand until the following Thursday. Visit the National Theatre of Great Britain website for future showings.
Diana Barth writes for several theater publications, including New Millennium. She may be contacted at email@example.com