By: Richard Bean, based on The Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldini
Songs by Grant Olding
Directed by: Nicholas Hytner
Venue: Lyttelton Theatre
Date: Tuesday 5th July 2011
What a difference from the other day! Still a modern reworking of a classic comedy, but this time the period setting (1963 Brighton) and the TV comedy talent (James Cordon) both worked brilliantly, as did everything else about this wonderful production. It did take me a little while to warm to this adaptation, mind you, as we saw another superb production of The Servant of Two Masters many years ago, and it took me some time to shake off the memories and get down to enjoying this performance fully, but I reckon anyone seeing it for the first time would have loved it.
The pre-show was good, too. A four-piece band, The Craze, was on stage doing parodies of the song styles of the 50s and 60s. I didn’t catch all the words, but I did recognise the references to the Kinks and the Beatles in the interval set. They provided music for the scene changes, too, and most of the cast helped out with these numbers at one time or another. The three ladies did a song, all wearing identical pink frocks and blond wigs, Trevor Laird contributed on steel drum for one number with Derek Elroy funking it up beside him, Martyn Ellis was good on the ukulele, singing a song about his dad, and Chris Oliver contributed some horn tooting on the final change. James Cordon did a lovely snippet on the xylophone, but for me the funniest guest spot was Daniel Rigby, who did a musical chest-slapping sequence which was amazing and hilarious. Of course, they did a song at the end of the show to round it off, so we went out both happy and humming!
As I recall, the previous version went straight into the action, with the characters having to explain a lot of the background direct to the audience. This time, there’s an opening scene in Charlie Clench’s living room, where his daughter Pauline and Alan Dangle are celebrating their engagement. It’s clear we’re in Brighton – the silhouette of the pier in the distance helps, if you missed the actual dialogue – and in the 1960s, and the characters involved are not the most scrupulously honest bunch in the world. Charlie has done time, though less than he should have done thanks to his lawyer, Harry Dangle, also Alan’s dad. Also present are Dolly, Charlie’s bookkeeper who’s an emancipated working woman, and Lloyd Boateng, who’s also done time in Parkhurst and has many fond memories of his time there. He runs the Cricketers Arms pub, a pub that also does food, and is not so much a friend of Charlie’s as trying to get the catering contract for the wedding.
Pauline and Alan are very much in love. She’s as thick as two short planks, while he wants to be an ac-tor, and struts around declaiming mangled bits of plays and striking dramatic poses – all very funny. It turns out that they’re only able to get engaged because her previous betrothed, Roscoe Crabbe was killed recently. She didn’t love this Roscoe – it was a marriage of convenience to mask his preference for men – so everyone’s happy that she can now marry the man she truly loves. Until there’s a knock on the door, and Roscoe’s minder turns up to tell them all that Roscoe’s alive, and wanting both his bride and the money Charlie owes him. Oo-er.
This minder is Francis Henshall, played by James Corden, and when he’s not menacing those at the party with threats of Roscoe not being very happy, he’s looking round for some food to scoff, as he’s very, very hungry. He does get hold of some peanuts and throws them up to catch in his mouth. This got a good response from the audience; frankly, as long as the actor doesn’t actually choke himself, it’s always a sure-fired winner. For the final peanut he ends up going backwards over a chair, and claims he caught it when he got up – this is how it’s actually written in the text, which is remarkably detailed for comic business.
When Roscoe turns up, it’s clear to us that he’s actually a she – Rachel Crabbe, in fact, Roscoe’s non-identical twin sister. She uses Roscoe’s reputation to put the fear of god into the group, and claims Pauline, Roscoe’s bride, for him/herself. It’s a strange choice, but Roscoe was killed by her lover, Stanley Stubbers, and both she and he are on the run from the police. Rachel’s just come to get the money Charlie owes Roscoe so she and Stanley can leave the country.
She sends Francis to the Cricketers Arms where she’s going to stay, and after a song and a scene change, we see him outside the pub, still starving, and reduced to drinking off the dregs of several other drinks, after he’s removed the cigarette stub of course – eugh. He’s about to rummage in the dustbin for leftovers when Stanley Stubbers turns up, also planning to stay at the pub, but without knowing about Rachel’s plans. Francis doesn’t know about Stanley either – he thinks Rachel is Roscoe – but when Stanley hires Francis to be his man, Francis sees a chance to make double the money, and presumably eat twice the food. From here on, it’s a helter-skelter ride of mistaken identity and crossed letters, as Francis tries to keep both of his guvnors happy without either of them finding out about the other.
The trouble is that Francis doesn’t have a very good memory, and both Stanley and Rachel have identical trunks. It’s much too complicated to explain all the twists and turns, but each one ends up thinking the other’s dead, and heads off to the pier to commit suicide. But as they’re both there at the same time, they find out the other one’s alive and it’s a lovely happy ending for them, as it is for Pauline and Alan, who can now get married. Francis, on the other hand, has some explaining to do, but by getting each guvnor on their own, he manages to wangle two weeks paid holiday in Majorca, and a decent bit of spending money into the bargain. Then all he has to do is persuade Dolly to go with him, and he’s in heaven. Naturally she says yes, so happiness for everyone, including the audience, and a rousing song to finish.
The performances were all great, and after the situation had been set up in the opening scene, the humour came thick and fast. James Corden had plenty of comic business to keep us all amused. Apart from the peanut-throwing, there was a very heavy trunk to move after Stanley had employed Francis. Far too heavy, as it turned out; Francis couldn’t move it at all. So he asked for help from the audience, and brought a couple of gents on stage from the front row. Despite their great strength – they almost managed to lift it even with James Corden sitting on it – it took a while to get it off stage, and we had a lot of laughs in the process.
In the first half, possibly before the trunk bit, Francis is going on about how hungry he is, and asks if anyone has a sandwich he can have. Several people in the audience offer him theirs. Despite looking bemused by the whole thing, I assume he’s had to deal with this response before, so we had an entertaining few minutes while he found out what the sandwich fillings were, making funny comments about the situation all the while. Eventually he got things back on track when another character came on stage – he’d been glancing over that way as if desperate to be saved – and the sandwiches were spared.
The meal scene was absolutely brilliant. This is where both Stanley and Rachel, as Roscoe, are having a meal in the Cricketers Arms in different private rooms, and Francis’s job is to serve both of them. He’s helped by the pub’s own waiters, Gareth and Alfie. Gareth is the senior waiter, but even though Alfie’s the new boy – it’s his first day – he looks like he’s got more than one foot in the grave. A lot of the humour came from his attempts to carry the food up the stairs without spilling anything, and the poor man took a lot of knocks for the sake of comedy.
We also got our second dose of audience participation in this scene. Francis is keen to have a food stash for later – a little bit from each course that he can indulge in after the bosses have dined. He starts with the remains of the soup by handing the tureen over to a lady in the front row, Christine Patterson. As the courses go by, and more and more food is being put in the tureen, he brings her up on stage, and then has to hide her behind a cut out figure of a cricketer. Later he tries to shove her under the table, and by this time, both Steve and I had spotted that the lady in question was not an innocent member of the public, although the actress did good job with her small part. At the end of the scene she has water thrown over her and gets sprayed by a fire extinguisher, so that’s when they take the interval. All good fun, and well set up by the earlier audience participation.
The second half started really well too, with Francis pointing out that in commedia dell’arte terms, the Harlequin character needs some new motivation to drive his actions now that his hunger’s been satisfied. Just after he tells us that we have to try and spot what that might be, Dolly walks on, and we’re all immediately clear on the subject. There was also a lot of emphasis on the non-identical twins theme, with Rachel even going into great technical detail in the final scene about monozygotic and dizygotic twins. It wasn’t the funniest thing all the time, but that last episode paid for all, with a lovely pause from Charlie before he said ‘What’s your point?’
The whole ensemble worked really well together, and it didn’t feel like a star vehicle, despite the focus on James Corden’s role. Oliver Chris was superb as Stanley Stubbers, the posh boy who’s an accidental murderer, Fred Ridegway was excellent as Charlie Clench, and Daniel Rigby was brilliant as Alan, the wannabe posh actor, whose accent slips under pressure to reveal his true origins. The rest of the cast weren’t far behind, and the band was excellent too. A magical afternoon of comedy.
© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me