Richard Bean’s interpretation of Carlo Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters of 1746 provides the National with one of its funniest and most successful productions in years. Bean transports the action to Brighton, 1963, and places James Corden as Francis Henshall at the centre of the action. He spends the duration of the play attempting to simultaneously please two masters. One is Rachel Crabbe, the twin sister of a dead mobster, disguised as the deceased. The other: Stanley Stubbers, a pillar of public school who is both the lover of Crabbe, and the murderer of her brother. Both are there to raise funds for an escape to Australia, but neither is aware of the other’s presence, and Henshall is ignorant of their connection.
Bean has retained the absurdity of a farce, and added a touch of British humour, to create what could be described as Carry-on-Commedia-dell’arte. As in Goldoni’s original, Henshall’s motivating factor is a crippling hunger, making him willing to try even a letter as a snack. It is in the rapport Corden builds with the audience that much of the humour is found, despite a hilarious script. He ad-libs and improvises (much to the public despair of the technical team), and in the performance I watched, directly asked the front row for food, culminating in a sandwich being thrown onto the stage from the audience to be met with utter disbelief from Corden as he genially declared: ‘Do you know where you are? This is the National Theatre! You can’t throw food when you watch The Cherry Orchard next door!’
The highlight of the production is the dinner scene, where Henshall attempts to feed both masters simultaneously, and keep aside some food for himself. The wonderful addition of a crumbling waiter, played to perfection by Tom Edden, made the scene tear-inducingly funny. Edden staggered across the stage like the ghost of Faulty Towers’ Manuel, and Corden bumbled about him, pushing the waiter repeatedly down the stairs, from which he returned unscathed and unperturbed.
The entire cast are nimble and sharp, delivering their characters and puns with enthusiasm. Daniel Rigby’s melancholic actor channels every thespian cliché to perfection, and both Jemima Rooper (Crabbe) and Oliver Chris (Stubbers) commit to their stereotypes and highlight them for humour. It is a brilliant re-imagining, a hilarious script. The issue with future productions will be the challenge to find an alternative Henshall. Corden’s performance reinstates him as a serious theatrical talent, but also as a true clown. His comic timing is wonderful, and the joy he takes in the madness is utterly infectious.
Photograph by Johan Persson, courtesy of the National Theatre