Writer: Richard Bean
Director: Nicholas Hytner
Oh how we need a good laugh right now and oh how disappointing it is that the National Theatre’s now postponed premier production of the new comedy by Richard Bean (with Oliver Chris), Jack Absolute Flies Again, will not be giving it to us. In such circumstances, there seems little else to do but to revive memories of Bean’s huge international hit, One Man, Two Guvnors, filmed with the original cast as seen in the Lyttelton Theatre in 2011.
Bean’s play is based very loosely on Il Servitore di Due Padrone, a 1743 comedy by Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni, but high brow credentials end there, as Nicholas Hytner steers his production more in the direction of Music Hall than that of classical theatre. Hytner’s great achievement is to make much of the evening feel impromptu and unrehearsed when, obviously, it is nothing of the sort.
Returning to the same boards that he had trodden previously in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, James Corden plays Francis Henshall, the titular servant of two masters. His larger-than-life laddish persona had already become familiar on television by 2011 and he strikes up a rapport with the audience instantly, dominating the production throughout. Corden won the Best Actor Tony award for reprising his role on Broadway, a rare but fully justified recognition of the fact that playing comedy requires at least as much skill as playing serious drama.
The setting is Brighton in 1963. Francis is the minder of a small time criminal who is shot dead and replaced by his twin sister Rachel (Jemima Rooper) with a view to her reclaiming a debt from ex-con Charlie (Fred Ridgeway). Awkwardly, Rachel has to take over as the fiancee of Charlie’s daughter, when she is actually in love with the toff Stanley (Oliver Chris), her brother’s killer. When Stanley arrives in Brighton, he hires Francis who is still working for Rachel and who must now keep his two employers apart. There are further plot strands, but their details become incidental as the mayhem unfolds.
Bean’s verbal gags roll out with the speed of a Marx Brothers film and the slapstick set-pieces are staged with the precision and timing of Laurel and Hardy. If that sounds old-fashioned, well it is exactly that, just as it was back in 2011. It is timeless to be more exact. The highlight comes with the final scene of the first act, when Rachel and Stanley dine in separate private rooms of a restaurant with Francis coordinating the service. Tom Edden as an 87-year-old waiter with a dodgy pacemaker, working his first day on the job, takes the knocks and steals a bundle of laughs.
The second act in which the entanglements become resolved does not quite match up to the first, but it is far from dull. Lively original songs by Grant Olding are played by a Skiffle group, The Craze, at intervals, with members of the company taking turns to join in. Mark Thompson’s exaggerated sets and vivid period costumes add greatly to the fun. The only major loss in the transition from stage to screen is the removal of the fear that Corden could pick you out and summon you onto the stage. Otherwise, this show is every bit as fresh and sidesplittingly funny as it was nine years ago.
Available on the National Theatre’s You Tube channel here until 9 April 2020