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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Lyttleton)


  James Corden and Suzie Toase/ Ph: Johan Persson

It has taken an unadulterated piece of theatrical fun to reveal two things. One is that television comedy actor James Corden – star of this 1950s Brighton version of Carlo Goldoni’s 18th century The Servant of Two Masters – has a lot of talent. The other is that National Theatre artistic director Nicholas Hytner is an expert at directing physical humor. 
The news about Corden comes as a bit of a surprise because lately the impression had formed that Corden is – to use a popular term about people whose sound and fury signifies nothing – all mouth and no trousers. True, he had a big hit with a TV sitcom, but more recently he was associated with an embarrassing spat at an awards ceremony with Sir Patrick Stewart – Stewart made fattist jokes about Corden; Corden made ageist jokes about Stewart – which did neither of them much good. 
But with a performance that reveals a rare talent for not just working audiences but making friends with them, Corden has made a fresh start. He plays Henshall, a permanently hungry, tweed-suited British version of Goldoni’s working-class Truffaldino. Henshall is an opportunist who ends up getting two jobs serving two demanding bosses. One of them is a woman (Jemima Rooper) disguised as her murdered gangster twin brother. The other is the toff (Oliver Chris) who killed him. 
Corden's Henshall triumphantly panics his way through his duties. He mixes up his bosses’ letters, guards their property with hilarious ineptitude and serves their lunch while eating it. Hytner’s production delivers the promise made earlier in the show when Corden motivelessly chases a woman around designer Cal McCrystal’s two-dimensional Brighton town houses, culminating with Corden's body-double cart-wheeling across the stage. 
Looking back at past productions, Hytner always liked a bit of rough and tumble. In his very funny Much Ado about Nothing, Simon Russell Beale’s Benedick jumped into a swimming pool during one of the eavesdropping scenes. But here the penny truly drops that Hytner is as good at delivering slapstick as he is the subtlest nuance. In the intricately choreographed lunch scene, a deaf, octogenarian waiter (a brilliantly doddery Tom Edden) is sent flying down stairs, thumped by a cricket bat and smacked in the face by doors. Each visual gag is taken to its comic peak, but no further. Meanwhile writer Richard Bean, who here adapts the Goldoni original, displays a similar restraint with the verbal jokes. 
Bean is the man Hytner asked to amend Dion Boucicault’s script for a recent revival of London Assurance. Bean took the Victorian comedy’s big anti-Semitic joke and turned it into a joke about anti-Semitic Victorians. A playwright in his own right, he has adapted works from Moliere to Mamet, and this time, so complete is the overhaul, he gets higher billing than Goldoni. 
The entire reinvention has the feeling of a guilty pleasure about it. A 1950s skiffle band sets the tone as the audience members take their seats. Between scenes, cast members perform end-of-pier musical entertainments played on spoons or horns. The whole evening looks as if it was thrown together in an afternoon, with high-energy Corden ad-libbing along with his new friends – the audience. But of course, nothing ends up being this funny unless every fall, trip, double take and triple toe loop has been intricately planned in what can now be said is true Hytner style. 

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