James Corden isn't an obvious matinee idol.
Such is his wide-eyed control over the audience in Nicholas Hytner’s National Theatre production of Richard Bean’s audacious reinvention of Goldoni’s The Servant Of Two Masters, that it’s impossible not to warm to his barnstormingly full-on performance.
Corden’s TV-friendly features help, of course, in what (in Bean, Hytner and especially physical comedy director Cal McCrystal’s hands) is transformed into a riotous end-of- the-pier seaside-postcard sitcom.
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Bean sets things in Brighton during 1963, that crucial year, as poet Philip Larkin put it, when sexual intercourse began “between the end of the Chatterley ban and The Beatles first LP”. It was also the year the skiffle boom was stamped on by rock’n’roll, as Corden’s estuarised harlequin Francis Henshall finds to his cost when he and his washboard are chucked out of his band.
Out of such adversity, Francis blags his way into the pay of Jemima Rooper’s psychopathic gangster, who’s actually the Kray-like kingpin’s twin sister, and Oliver Chris’s toff who apparently killed him. With a barrow-load of dodgy geezers, would-be stage stars, nice-but-dim daughters and pneumatic proto-feminists in tow, Francis double-bluffs his way into one mess after another in a breathless virtuoso ensemble display.
Beyond such fine-tuned hilarity, there’s also some subtle social comment going on about the state of post-World War Two British culture as it moved out of 1950s austerity and started to swing.
There’s a sense of soon-to-be-thwarted feel-good optimism at play here too that sits oddly in tune with the present moment. Such a sly and vividly knowing approach makes this an unmissable comic experience on every level.