While its auditoria remain dark due to the coronavirus pandemic, the National Theatre goes global with a selection of some of its greatest hits, available for a week each via YouTube. Under the National Theatre at Home initiative, the productions, originally filmed for NT Live, can be viewed for free by clicking on the relevant link on the National’s website (https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk). Access is free, though donations to the theatre (which, like all other cultural institutions, is bound to suffer long-term economic damage from the shutdown) are warmly encouraged. Waiting in the wings are Sally Cookson’s adaptation of Jane Eyre, Bryony Lavery’s version of Treasure Island, and Twelfth Night, featuring Tamsin Greig in her much-admired performance as a gender-swapped Malvolio.
To kick proceedings off, though, there’s a blockbuster hit pretty much guaranteed to bring on the belly laughs, even in these sombre times. Richard Bean’s audacious, swaggering rewrite of the Goldoni classic The Servant of Two Masters, directed with customary precision and verve by Nicholas Hytner, opened at the National in 2011, transferring to the West End and Broadway, where it bagged a Tony for its lead actor, James Corden, and helped propel him to international stardom. Watching it on the sofa at home, without the warmth and kinetic connection of the live, communal theatrical experience, inevitably feels a little strange at first. The facial expressions look so pronounced, the delivery sounds so deliberate. It’s interesting, too, how the shift in political sensibilities over the last decade makes some of the more risqué humour seem startling. There are jokes about gender, and one in particular about sexual shenanigans at a boys’ boarding school, that today might raise ire, as well as eyebrows. But by and large this is a joyous romp, performed with considerable wit, skill and generosity – a spirit-lifting tonic, the perfect accompaniment, I’d suggest, to a slug of self-isolation gin (there’s even an interval when you can fix your drink – but under the circumstances, why wait?)
Bean resets Goldoni’s 1746 commedia dell’arte-inspired farce in Sixties Brighton, where the denizens of gangland indulge in romantic intrigue and back-stabbing skulduggery – except, of course, that these crooks are clowns, so the only claret actually spilt is the kind that comes in bottles. Jemima Rooper – elfin, but with the strutting cockiness of a boyband heartthrob – is Rachel Crabbe, masquerading as her own murdered brother Roscoe in order to collect his ill-gotten gains. Oliver Chris – louche, lanky, doltishly posh – is her lover Stanley Stubbers, who is also her brother’s killer and is now in hiding from the rozzers. Bouncing between them is Corden’s roly-poly Francis Henshall, the Harlequin trickster of the comedy, a cheerful, nimble creature of appetite who spies the chance to double up on his dinners and his salary and offers his services to both of them.
Scenes are linked by brilliant musical pastiche, by Grant Olding, of skiffle, calypso, the Andrews Sisters and Beatles-esque pop, all performed by a drum-tight band with guest appearances from the cast. (Chris is a particular pleasure playing a selection of car horns.) There are terrific supporting turns from Suzie Toase as the lubricious Dolly, sharp-tongued accountant of a shabby kingpin, Claire Lams as his dim-witted daughter and Daniel Rigby as her stage-struck would-be finance Alan (“it’s 1963, there’s a revolution in theatre, and Angry Young Men are writing plays about Alans!”). But above all this is Corden’s show, and he handles it with virtuosic flair, from his deftly executed pratfalls and immaculate comic timing to his genial ad-libbing and easy rapport with the audience, whose presence is an indispensable part of the comic mechanism. There’s no fourth wall here: There’s direct address, knowingly cheeky asides, and participation both on stage and in the stalls. It makes you long to be there. But for now, this is about as good as it gets.