I am not a fan of farces but I enjoyed this Richard Bean’s comedy at the National Theatre last year. It’s now transferred to the West End and I went to see it, more out of curiosity, to see if the new cast members could live up to the dazzling performance from their predecessors. I was not let down on that score; and I didn’t feel that the comedy had lost its charm after two viewings in less than a year. Much credit has to go to both Richard Bean for his writing and Nicholas Hytner for his vision. The biggest test for me was how I was going to respond to the ‘planted’ audience participation moments and I was pleasantly surprised at how funny I found them.
The Telegraph points out that it is rare for productions to promote understudies to lead roles so a big thumbs up to this production for getting Owain Arthur to play the lead role, Francis Henshall, previously played by James Corden – a move that Arthur repays in spades with his excellent performance. He brings a touch of difference to this role by way of his Welsh accent which makes his character’s comic lines funnier. I would, however, add that James Corden had a better rapport with the audience; this might be due to the fact that familiarity might make it easier for an audience to warm to a well known star.
The rest of the cast is superbly strong. Hannah Spearritt’s Pauline is a well meaning but ultimately empty headed girl; Jodie Prenger’s Dolly is sprightly and the scenes she shares with Henshall are truly funny; Daniel Ing’s wanna-be actor actor, Alan, is suitably hammy; and Gemma Whelan’s Rachel is convincing as the cross-dressing gangster. One of the funniest scenes takes place just before the interval which has the audience screeching with laughter. This involves an accident prone aged waiter, Alfie (Martin Barrass), who has numerous mishaps involving trays of food, doors and a staircase; the comic timing of all the actors involved in this scene is just as impeccable as it was in the National Theatre’s production.
If I have one small criticism to make, it is that this production is much too identical to the National’s. Aside from Arthur’s Welsh accent, there is nothing else here that offers a refreshing, newer perspective on this comedy. I can, however, understand why they’ve stuck to the formula that has worked for commercial reasons. That said, the audience reception was markedly different on one small thing in this production. Dolly makes a half-in-jest reference about Thatcher at which the audience at the National howled with laughter. In contrast, at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, I sensed a silent but powerful disapproval.
This play reminds us of one of theatre’s primary roles which is to entertain and entertain this does emphatically.
Until 1 September 2012.
Written by Richard Bean.
Based on The Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldoni.
Directed by Nicholas Hytner.
Performance time is 2 hours and 30 minutes including an interval.