Writer: Richard Bean
Music: Grant Olding
Original Director: Nicholas Hytner
Tour Director: Adam Penford
Reviewer: Luke Walker
Since 2011 this production from the National Theatre has been an enormous hit on The South Bank, The West End and on Broadway. Beginning life with James Cordon in the central rôle it has garnered countless accolades. Now, the extensive touring production visits the sold out Lowry Theatre and provides over two hours of an exhaustive, absurd and very funny farce action.
“I get confused easily” proclaims the buffoonish, ever hungry central fool Francis Henshall (Gavin Spokes). This is not a good quality for someone who has greedily taken on two jobs – in secret! When recruited by gangster Rachel Crabbe (Alicia Davies) – disguised as a her murdered twin brother Roscoe – and also by eccentric English cad Stanley Stubbers (Patrick Warner) – who murdered Roscoe a week earlier – things are going to be tricky for a man who quite happily eats paper if it is tasty enough. Throw into the mix the fact that Rachel and Stanley are secretly in love yet they both believe the other is dead and plot becomes so complicated that there is no chance for Francis to follow all the intricacies – never mind the audience.
But this hardly matters. What takes central stage are the precise set routines, slapstick, audience interaction and wordplay – this show revels in silliness. Writer Richard Bean pays homage to the Italian tradition of Commedia dell’Arte – the style in which A Servant of Two Masters was written in 1746 (as well as being such a strong influence on British pantomime in the 19th Century) – by allowing characters to break the fourth wall and have direct address with the audience with asides that conveniently deliver exposition.
With the action set in London and Brighton in 1963 this is fused with a bawdy British comedy style that isn’t too far removed from a Carry On film. It is no coincidence that the scene changes are punctuated with musical acts backed by house band The Craze that are reminiscent of the music hall or end of the pier revues. As Francis, Gavin Spokes has enormous clown shoes to fill given the success of its initial incarnation. As a Buttons style figure he quickly wins the audience over and has them laughing at his increasingly absurd predicaments as well as trying to win over the sex hungry, pointy-bosomed northerner Dolly (Emma Barton). Michael Dylan has wonderful physical turn as the decrepit, elderly waiter who resembles a muppet powered by a pacemaker. Alicia Davies must use an audience’s willingness to suspend belief as she swaps gender between Roscoe and Rachel with just the aid of a hat and Patrick Warner has some wonderfully filthy one-liners as Stanley Stubbers.
Some of the highlights of the show are when things onstage don’t go exactly according to plan – usually involving a little bit of audience participation. There is something greatly humorous when watching an actor drop out of character or have to improvise as something different is thrown at them every night. However, without giving too much away, the opposite happens when these ‘unique’ events begin to not feel so unique.
It is easy to see why this show has had the success it has had. As a feel good production it excels and allows an audience to sit back and enjoy the precise comedy craftsmanship on display. Although, the real craft of comedy is, of course, disguising the craft itself.
Runs until Sat 17th January 2015