by Richard Bean.
Now sold out at the Adelphi Theatre.
A new run begins at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, March 2, 2012.
Jocular, corpulent and permanently corpsing, the appeal of James Corden goes straight over my head. He falls into that category of ‘you probably have to be English to get it’, rather like Eric and Ernie. Recently given the Piers Morgan treatment on ITV (yes he’s that big), the perky continuity announcer quipped over the closing credits, “That James Corden, eh? You’d go for a pint with him, wouldn’t ya”. I’m not so sure.
NT Director Nicholas Hytner, knowing a good thing when he sees it, plucked Corden from obscurity for The History Boys, which led to the play reaching the West End, Broadway and a movie version. Cordon then co-wrote and acted in the excellent Gavin and Stacey, which captured the nation’s hearts, but a Faustian pact with the tabloids inevitably turned nasty and he was in the doldrums until he re-emerged, Lazarus-like, in this, another gold-plated hit for the National which now transfers to the West End.
Hytner saw that Cordon was perfect for the Commedia dell Arte style of this piece which is freely (putting it mildly) adapted from Carlo Goldoni’s 18th century comedy The Servant of Two Masters. The frequent audience interaction, the regular asides, the endless comic bits of business with props (letters, food, a heavy trunk) and the general air of improvisation make it a perfect star vehicle.
The Corden fans who laugh at his entrance (now that only used to happen on Broadway) made up about two thirds of the audience, while the reminder sat stony-faced checking their iPhones. That is par for the course in the West End nowadays, where shows have to please a very diverse crowd, but it still challenges the idea that it is a universally acclaimed masterpiece. When it hits Broadway in April one wonders whether it might go the way of Enron?
Bean has set his adaptation in Brighton in the early 60s and the convoluted plot boils down to cheeky chappie Francis (Corden), having to juggle two ‘Guvnors’ (bosses), one a cross dressing female gangster, the other a dodgy toff. Inevitably the two Guvnors end up dining in adjoining private rooms in the same pub on the same night.
The 60s setting, enhanced by a fabulous live band doing the curtain numbers (over the scene changes), allows the lively ensemble cast to shine with some polished comic archetypes. Saucy Suzie Toase is all Barbara Windsor curves as the bookkeeper Dolly, Fred Ridgeway is a delight as the slippery spiv Charlie ‘the Duck’ Clench and Oliver Chris is perfectly tall and handsome as the obnoxious public school git Stanley Stubbers. Bean’s vitriol against public school types plays to the gallery here and while it might capture the zeitgeist, it’s misplaced for the period. It does fit, however, with the very broad brush and lazy approach of the script.
Tom Eddens’ gloriously elastic performance as the doddery octogenarian waiter is remarkable too, but like the whole piece it is over-egged. The sight of him being beaten with a cricket bat, in the end, crosses the line between fun and poor taste.
Marketed as a farce it has none of the rigour of the genre. Farce works because it is played straight and has an internal logic. We crack up at the spectacle of people trying to maintain their dignity while all is crumbling around them. Here, the piece is too in love with itself to do that. Instead we get a series of vaudeville turns and you’ll be in it if you sit in the front row.
If you want to worship at the temple of Corden certainly go, but if you want a real farce, go see Noises Off.