With the company’s well-founded reputation for lively regional comedy and an original approach to the classics, The Man with Two Gaffers, Blake Morrison’s adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s A Servant of Two Masters, seems perfect Northern Broadsides material. Unfortunately the production, in association with York’s Theatre Royal, emerges as strangely lifeless, though it may gain momentum on a tour that takes in some less traditional performing spaces.
Staging is certainly a problem. Leslie Travers’ expressionist designs are elegantly gritty, but entrances over spoil-heaps are precarious, slow and seldom used, thereby negating the demands of farce for variety and pace in the characters’ comings and goings. Given a traditional proscenium stage, the limited space often places the actors in a downstage line or shallow semi-circle. Apart from certain set pieces, like the neatly choreographed table-laying, Barrie Rutter’s production becomes oddly static.
This version, transposed from Venice’s Grand Canal to the Leeds-Liverpool at Skipton, lacks the light-on-its-feet, Commedia Dell’ Arte qualities of the original. The story is not one you want time to think about. A rich young man, Charles Ramsey, has been killed in a brawl. His fiancée, Clarice, is thus free to marry her sweetheart, despite the misgivings of her mercenary father. Unexpectedly “Charles” appears, definitely alive, but in fact his twin sister Charlotte, disguised. She is seeking her fiancée who is accused, wrongly, of the murder – and he, in turn, comes looking for her. A single servant, eager for extra rations, works for both of them in a sort of double-Dromio act. The transparent complications and confusions sit better with Goldoni’s traditional stage types than with solid Dales folk.
The regional updating begins well with a witty song about the glories of Skipton, but tends to rely on disinterred dialect terms and the humour of place-names. Is “Bingley” inherently funny? The York audience thought so; Southampton theatre-goers may think of mortgages or Jane Austen.
Barrie Rutter is too much the solid citizen for the role of the romantic trickster Truffaldino (re-named Arthur Dodge), but his knowing rapport with the audience is among the evening’s pleasures. So, too, are very promising company debuts by Victoria Fleming and, especially, Kate Ambler, truthful and convincing as Charlotte/Charles.
The expansion of Northern Broadsides’ activities is one of the most pleasing recent developments in regional theatre – another world premiere is scheduled for Halifax in late September. But with The Man with Two Gaffers the company has temporarily lost its usual unerring sense of the theatrical.
- Ron Simpson (reviewed at the Theatre Royal, York)