Reviewing a Royal Shakespeare Company production of A Servant of Two Masters in 2000, I remarked that two and three-quarter hours is unconscionably long for a commedia dell’arte play. The NT’s version runs for three, including a clutch of pre-show skiffle numbers and several more to cover (with room to spare) scene changes, sometimes even incorporating solos by principal members of the cast playing, say, xylophone or tuned motor horns.
Richard Bean’s adaptation has all the comic fizz one expects from that writer: it is packed with one-liners, running gags, callbacks and even a lecturette on that great theatrical trope, identical twins of different sexes. The protagonist, called Truffaldino in Carlo Goldoni’s 1743 original, is now Francis Henshall, who finds himself accidentally employed as minder and manservant in 1963 Brighton by both Roscoe Crabbe, an East End hoodlum in town to marry a former associate’s daughter, and Stanley Stubbers, an upper-class twit in love with Roscoe’s twin sister Rachel and preparing to flee the country with her because he has murdered, er, Roscoe … Naturally, the Roscoe who is Francis’s first guvnor is Rachel in disguise; naturally, neither guvnor knows of the other; naturally, in fact, hardly anybody knows anything, least of all the late Roscoe’s fiancée, whose mantra is “I don’t understand”.
James Corden back on stage at the National for the first time since the 2004 premiere of The History Boys, works his character and the audience well. He has energy and commitment; what he lacks, and indeed Nicholas Hytner’s production lacks throughout, is pace and crispness of action. The centrepiece of the play is a routine in which Truffaldino/Francis serves multi-course meals simultaneously to both guvnors in opposite wings while trying to grab some of the food for himself. In the 25 minutes of this episode, the steaks may increase but the stakes do not, so to speak; the speed and frenzy do not build nearly enough, despite some excellent prat-falling from Tom Edden as a doddery old waiter.
Jemima Rooper switches nicely between menace and femininity as guvnor number one, and Oliver Chris has a pearl of a part as nice-but-dim guvnor number two. There is never a dull moment in the evening. It’s just that there’s too damn much of it.