This National Theatre production is a prime example of quintissentialy British, or perhaps more correctly, English, humour. And while it perhaps just falls short of the hype surrounding it, it does provide more laughs to the hour than anything else the theatre has to offer today.
Odd, then, that it is based on Goldoni’s 1746 play The Servant of Two Masters, which previously had a successful translation to Scots dialect in the 1960s. But this incarnation, set in Brighton in the ‘60s is firmly in the seaside postcard tradition of broad humour.
The convoluted plot centres on Francis Henshall (an all-out, high energy Gavin Spokes), who takes a job as minder to Roscoe Crabbe. Roscoe, however is already dead, and it’s his twin sister Rachel ( a well-judged performance from Alicia Davis), dressed in Roscoe’s clothes, that he is really working for. When an opportunity presents itself to earn a bit more working for upper-class gent Stanley Stubbers (played to perfection by Patrick Warner), the hard-up Francis eagerly accepts. What he doesn’t know is that Stanley is both Roscoe’s killer and Rachel’s lover…after that, it all gets too complicated to go into here.
Suffice to say that the show moves along at breakneck speed with a great deal of slapstick and some cracking one-liners, never pausing to let the audience, never mind the cast, catch their breath. And filling in nicely between scene changes are the show’s musicians as ‘60s style band The Craze – make sure you’re in your seat 15 minutes before the scheduled start time to catch their opening set.
When you set out to break the “fourth wall” and invite audience participation at times, it can sometimes backfire on you, and when Francis’s musing that “1500 people in here, you’d think one of them would have a sandwich” prompts an offer of one from the stalls, Spokes was left temporarily nonplussed. He quickly recovered, though – “You do realise this isn’t a panto, it’s the National Theatre?” and putting an arm round a colleague who had just made his entrance: “This is Colin. He’s only got 3 lines, and you’ve just done for 2 of them” while choking back laughter.
It’s a fine ensemble piece, Edward Hancock suitably over the top as would-be Actor and lovelorn swain Alan, while Derek Elroy charms as Lloyd. But it is perhaps a shame that the funniest scene of all comes at the end of Act One, when Francis has to serve a meal to both his employers, helped (well, maybe that’s the wrong word) by waiters Gareth (Elliot Harper) and 87 year old trainee Alfie – a spectacular display of comic timing by Michael Dylan. While Act Two is still full of laughs, it has nothing to match this.
I’ll close by awarding my own round of applause to the scene-stealing Katharine Moraz – what part she plays you will find out when you go.