A Triumph for Mr Bean

Reworking a masterpiece can be a tricky business. The National Theatre succeeds with Goldoni but not with Chekhov

Anne McElvoy

Richard Bean is the nearest thing to a comic genius among contemporary playwrights: febrile, irreverent, and gifted with the ability to make dialogue crackle along in a way which makes the jokes seem entirely natural, however bizarre the circumstances. I thought him under-praised for The Heretic at the Royal Court recently, a rare example of the politically predictable London stage turning a quizzical eye on the pieties of the global warming argument.

Not much danger of him lacking esteem for One Man, Two Guvnors though. His reworking of Goldoni’s 18th-century tale of identity-swapping and servant-master shenanigans has the National’s occasionally upright audiences in helpless convulsions. Bean takes the classical architecture of Goldoni’s Venetian farce and resettles his characters in seamy Sixties Brighton, where Francis Henshall (James Corden) plays servant to two masters. A gangland boss, Charlie “the Duck”, is trying to marry off his nice-but-dim daughter to a rival’s son. He has inconveniently been murdered and is being avenged by his sister in cross-dressing disguise. She is also in love with the modern fop Stanley Stubbers (Oliver Chris) and Corden is secretly working for them both. As their paths cross, Chris delights as a fabulous idiot who seems to have wandered in straight from the Cartier Polo tournament armed with King’s Road slang and zero self-knowledge.

The play hinges on the likeability of the rogue, and Corden is a great hunk of greed, manipulation and confusion all in one supremely watchable package. He is a pneumatic version of the Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls: broad-shouldered, self-confident and utterly convinced that he can shape events, whatever the evidence to the contrary. Corden and Bean have crafted a knowing relationship with the audience, making us collude in his scheme to earn two wages at once and deftly manipulating the front row by cadging sandwiches and co-opting trunk-lifters and accomplices. With skiffle band music by Grant Olding to help the action roll along, the famous scene in which the servant dishes up two dinners at once to his different masters, while managing to eat most of it himself, is a tour de force-not least thanks to the doddery elasticity of the waiter (Tom Edden), a boneless wonder when it comes to falling downstairs or bouncing off walls.

Unfettered greed is Corden’s speciality, an import from his role as the Essex comfort-eater Smithy in TV’s Gavin & Stacey, but perfectly adapted here to the world of Brighton Rock mobsters.  In his time, Goldoni pepped up the dying form of commedia dell’arte, so Bean is similarly entitled to breathe new life into the dusty world of farce. One Man, Two Guvnors is a worthy tribute to an old master, as well as a thoroughly modern makeover. It’s  a sell-out  at the National but it will be touring, including dates in Salford, Edinburgh and Birmingham. Do go, though if you’re the retiring sort, the front row might not be the place for you. 

We’re asked to reimagine the oft-performed Much Ado by two more telly heroes, Catherine Tate and David Tennant at the Wyndham’s Theatre, in Josie Rourke’s first major commercial West End production. This isn’t the best advert for her work.  When it comes to relocating Shakespeare in different eras, we’ve been there and done that for a number of years now, so it had better have a point. Setting Much Ado in the vulgar 1980s doesn’t really add any dimension to the play beyond wardrobes of shoulder pads, disco music and some brash “re-imagining” of Don John as a frustrated homosexual. Naturally.

It’s Benedick and Beatrice we give a toss about and Tate, with her TV moue firmly in place, gibes, swaggers and torments her way through the first half, a Beatrice entirely without charm, using her wit as a mallet.

She does have real stage presence: physically large and imposing, unlike all the neat and nifty Beatrices we’ve seen teasing poor Benedick. The trouble is, she doesn’t appear to be remotely in love with him at any level, and the shift to tenderness never convinces. The Wham! generation of  pleasure-seekers also creates some oddities. If Beatrice is so upset at the treatment of her wronged kinswoman Hero, why is she lying on a sun-lounger in a maxi-dress when everyone else is in mourning? Silly distractions, these, but the inevitable result of over-egging an already rich pudding.

Tennant is the more rounded Shakespearean actor, with dark eyes darting anxiously around in grief and sheer bewilderment. He excels in the scene where he is gulled into thinking Beatrice loves him, which is played here as broad farce. When Beatrice falls for the same trick, she ends up swaying from a decorator’s hoist. These are farcical intrusions somewhere between Goldoni and Charley’s Aunt. A lot of the Wyndham’s Shakespeare audiences are there for the first time, new groundlings lured by the telly names — and nothing wrong with that. It’s uplifting to see a crowd on their feet hollering acclaim at the cast after a first encounter with Shakespeare, but the production isn’t as big as its big names.

Back at the National, Andrew Upton has been doing up Chekhov, with his own reimagining of an aristocratic world in which characters say “frigging” and “bollocks” round the samovar. Yes, well. Upton’s White Guard reflected his talent for bringing Russian classics to modern audiences with pace and revolutionary liberties with the text. That’s harder to pull off with The Cherry Orchard, an unusually uneventful Chekhov play which relies on a sense of mood and loss for its emotional power. The result feels a bit forced and hectic, though rescued by Zoe Wanamaker’s grande dame performance of imperious whimsy, oblivious to the dangers encroaching on her ancestral home. Bunny Christie’s set, opening up from the tumbledown house to reveal the Russian wilderness beyond, is gorgeously dreamy and Conleth Hill’s clumsy, wily Lopakhin steals the show. But when we have a pre-revolutionary character alluding to the Sixties pop lyric “Oh Lord! Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”, we have wandered too far from the tone and purpose of a great play for it to be credible. 

One day, I predict, some happening director is going to give audiences a surprising hit. They will take a classic drama, use the original text with everyone in period dress, but it will still touch us. You never know.

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