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Big Night at the National

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One of many great things about One Man, Two Guvnors at the National Theatre is the double whammy scored in both honouring a great European classic and making it sing with a local application and a name.

This was last nearly done ten years ago in a Lee Hall version of Carlo Goldoni's A Servant To Two Masters directed by Tim Supple in a collaboration between the Young Vic and the RSC. It was pretty good, but not a patch on what Richard Bean and Nicholas Hytner have come up with on the South Bank. Suddenly a play that was once a stalwart of school drama and the reps, but has fallen into comparative oblivion, is right back in the saddle.

And Jemima Rooper's gorgeous performance as the disguised sister of her own dead brother, in love with the bounder who killed him, reminds me of a certain unknown actress who played in the Lee Hall version when it transferred from the Vic to the West End: Catherine Tate.

Tate was very funny as Smeraldina but Rooper goes one step beyond as Rachel Crabbe, being funny, sexy, coy, brazen and bisexually cute all at the same time. You just want to gobble her up, or take her home, or somehow just save her from the world and its wicked ways.

And James Corden as Francis Henshall goes several steps beyond Jason Watkins as Truffaldino in that earlier version, excellent and physically hilarious though Watkins was. His character playing is admirably restrained, his slow burn front cloth technique as good as any I've seen; it's no accident, I feel, that at one point he comes on in a Tommy Cooper fez and plays the xylophone -- perfectly (that's the gag).

There's no Corden sanitaire as far as the audience is concerned: he's right down there mixing with the front row from the off. He's desperately hungry and in dire need of a sandwich, so of course the chap he picks on admits he has one -- and it's hummus.Hummus where the art is.

Trying to shift an overweight trunk, he spends about five minutes levering it up into position, before admitting defeat and grabbing two guys from the audience -- who pick it up immediately and walk off with it, no problem.

The show is full of such deliciously re-worked old music hall gags, so that the evening becomes a celebration of two cultures as well as a servant of two masters: British variety and the Italian commedia, a trick I'd have thought was impossible.

The most famous post-war production of this play was by the Italian maestro Giorgio Strehler for the Piccolo Theatre in Milan which stayed in the repertory and toured the world for several decades. It visited the World Theatre Season at the Aldwych in London in the 1960s, and I saw it a second time when I achieved a lifelong ambition to see it on home territory at the old Piccolo, an intimate venue of 350 seats.

Strehler's production was inexpressibly graceful and beautiful, a masque of shadow, silhouette and candle-light, and played in tradional commedia costumes and powdered wigs, the Truffaldino a zanni performance of breath-taking agility and heart-breaking candour.

So I was more than prepared to be snooty about the National's new version. But I can't remember sitting among a National Theatre audience -- ever -- so obviously enjoying itself. One Man is that other rarity: a genuinely popular show with a high art quotient of quality in all executive areas -- script, design, performance and overall control of presentation.

We don't have any farces in the West End any more, but if we did, none of them would be as good as this. And I experienced another strange sensation last night: I wanted to see the show all over again before I'd even finished watching it for the first time.

The National probably has a duty now to get One Man into the West End as soon as possible, not only for the good of the nation, but also to capitalise on that rare phenomenon that guarantees a blockbuster hit: the repeat audience syndrome.

Nothing runs for ever unless people go back and see it time and time again. This usually happens with successful musicals, rarely with plays; the last one was probably Michael Frayn's Noises Off, maybe Alan Bennett's The History Boys (in which Corden made his NT debut). Time for lightning to strike yet again.


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