Star rating – 10/10
In all honesty I wasn’t expecting to love this play, hyped up as it has been and the recipient of rave reviews, with a West End transfer in the offing. That always makes me a bit nervous. Add to that my first experience of the National Theatre’s experiment of bringing productions to the provinces via your local multiplex screen via NT Live, and I felt it was going to be very much a hit and miss affair. How wrong could I be? I forgot about the slightly alien close up format in a matter of minutes, and I haven’t laughed so much in ages. And I mean really laughed, belly laughed, with tears streaming down many faces. It felt like a brilliant pantomime just for adults, and is theatre solid gold.
Richard Bean has adapted an eighteenth century Italian classic comedy by Carlo Goldini into a farce which serves as a complete and wonderful showcase for the comic genius of James Corden in particular, but of the whole of the rest of the cast too. It is always much harder to make people laugh than to make them cry, and the seeming simplicity of this story, and the way it is delivered with ease and panache, belie some very, very clever writing, and masterful performances.
The plot, when written down, it not much to behold at all, just lots of mistaken identities, cross dressing and deceptions. Goldini’s Italy is transposed into 1960’s Brighton. He accidently finds himself working for two different bosses, one is the sister of a dead gangster who is trying to swindle money out of a former associate of her brother’s to enable her to escape abroad with her lover, who just happened to murder her brother. Another is the said murdering lover. But all this is frankly secondary to the humour. And it takes audience participation to a whole new level.
Corden is a total revelation as failed skiffle player Francis Henshall. He is a master of comedy, at home ad libbing with the audience, and getting himself into a terrible muddle trying to follow instructions from two people who are unaware of the other’s existence, whilst all the while in the terrible throes of hunger pangs. Oliver Chris is excellent as the murdering toff, Stanley Stubbers, who gets public school crass stupidity and arrogance off to a tee. Daniel Rigby is wonderful as the budding thespian and failing lover who manages to get a Shakespeare quote into every over acted line. Suzi Toase is just brilliant as the busty personal assistant Dolly, who is a strident feminist when it suits, but manages to get the men wrapped around her little finger at every turn of her thumbscrew.
The riotous proceedings are opened and interspersed with a skiffel band to get the audience into the swing of things very nicely. There are also some hilarious musical interludes from cast members. I am not sure any review though can really do justice to this wonderful, outrageously funny play. My advice would be to catch it, either when it comes to Manchester next month, or on its West End transfer later in the year. You will not regret it for a minute.