A bawdy, saucy seaside postcard of a play, this comedy from Richard Bean cheerily hijacks the plot of Goldoni’s commedia dell’arte landmark ‘The Servant of Two Masters’. But the only traces of Mediterranean sun in Nicholas Hytner’s riotous production are the references to somewhere called ‘Madge-orca’ made by bumbling hero Francis (James Corden).
The place is Brighton, as depicted on the seedily romantic flats of designer Mark Thompson’s set. The time is the ’60s, just as they’re starting to swing. And the style is a loving homage to all the ripest British comedy of the past hundred years. Panto? Check. Music hall? Check. Audience participation? Check. ‘Carry On’-grade innuendos? Two big checks. A Benny Hill-style chase sequence? Cross-dressing? A man in a fez? Check. Check. Check.
But it’s all brilliantly bound together by Bean’s eminently modern sensibilities. It evades the misogyny of the humour it pays homage to; its loud, weird characters are more ‘Blackadder’ than ‘On the Buses’; and there’s a ferocious glint of steel behind the gags.
In brief: broke, hungry and not a little confused, the hapless Francis offers his services as a hired goon to not only Jemima Hooper’s Rachel Crabbe (who is posing as her dead twin brother, Roscoe), but also Oliver Chris’s sadistic posho, Stanley Stubbers (Rachel’s boyfriend and Roscoe’s killer).
Both have the same goal: to fleece Charlie ‘The Duck’ Clench so they can raise the funds to run away to Australia together. Oblivious to this, Francis does his damndest to stop them from meeting.
The whiny Francis never won my heart, which I suspect he was meant to. But he made me laugh a lot, and respect to Corden for a heroically committed physical performance, lobbing his chunky frame about like a human baton, conducting the ensemble’s fine-tuned symphony of hysteria. It peaks during the scene in which Francis serves both guvnors dinner simultaneously – Tom Edden’s decrepit waiter, Alfie, is a sublime creation – and never scales the same heights.
But cast and script are always funny and, from the startlingly authentic skiffle band who play us in, Hytner’s production is as jaw-droppingly detailed as you’d hope.