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Hysterical Laughter by the Book

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Matilda, Roald Dahl's unnaturally brillant and well-read little girl, who is lighting up the London theatre this week - reviews are embargoed until Friday - is asked by her teacher, Miss Honey, which of all the books she's read in the public library she likes the most, as she finds most of them fairly dull.

"I liked The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," says Matilda. "I think Mr C S Lewis is a very good writer. But he has one failing. There are no funny bits in his books."
One thing about reading Roald Dahl: you do laugh out loud. And one thing about going to the theatre: you don't laugh out loud that often, or at least, not beyond an occasional involuntary snort, or perhaps a wise and knowing controlled chuckle.

Whether Matilda the Musical is funny or not remains to be seen. The show certainly has the approval of the Dahl family and estate, though I gather that the former children's laureate, Michael Rosen, considers the show a travesty of the book and of Dahl's true message.

No doubt there are some who consider One Man, Two Guvnors a travesty of Goldoni. Any champions of the classic all-time definitive production of The Servant of Two Masters, and probably its director, Giorgio Strehler, would turn their noses up at Richard Bean's new version.

The Strehler production was indeed beautiful, elegant, magical, performed by candlelight and played in traditional commedia dell'arte masks and costumes, with a stylishly virtuosic performance as Truffaldino (the James Corden role) by a man who played the role for almost 50 years. I saw it in the Piccolo Theatre in Milan (as well as in London), and it was utterly breathtaking.

But I didn't really laugh all that much. Actually, I never laugh at farce all that much, as the action is too frenetic and, well, anxiety-inducing: will he, won't he, will she, won't she, that sort of thing. And unless you're in the safe hands of a master, such as Donald Sinden, the actors tend to be overdoing it to an off-putting degree. (Not that Sinden doesn't overdo it; au contraire, but it's as natural as breathing to him.) 

I see from the posters advertising the upcoming revival of Stones in His Pockets at the Tricycle, that "I laughed till I cried" at the original production in 1996. And indeed I did. When else has this happened? Every time I see Ken Dodd. The first time I saw Michael Frayn's Noises Off. And the other night at the Adelphi, when I saw the opening of One Man, Two Guvnors.

James Corden is brilliant. Oliver Chris is outrageously funny. But the real show-stealer is the unknown Tom Edden, whose performance as the decrepit old waiter, Alfie, is one of the most hilarious I've ever seen.

He totters on like some arthritic old octopus, his shambling gait an indicator of imminent collapse, his hair a straggly protest of Ben Gunn-like chaotic proportions, his arms flailing like those of a drowning swimmer, his feet buckled like a pair of warped wellies. He seems to go backwards while sidling forwards. And his catalogue of mishaps, falling down stairs, getting slammed against walls, is nothing less than he's obviously grown to expect and live with.

But of course, as with all great acting, it's all in the eyes. They stare out like coals in a fire, and who knows what panic breeds within. When David Benson's splendidly supercilious head waiter tells him to bring the soup he momentarily pauses, imagining what destruction will ensue; and the audience is instantly laughing: we've pictured the scene and yearn for disaster.

The first act of One Man, Two Guvnors is the most uproarious 80 minutes I've spent in a theatre for years. And I'm more than relieved that Nicholas Hytner's production hasn't coarsened or lost its discipline. Tom Edden - who coincidentally I've seen recently performing some plays, script in hand, written by eight-year-olds at the Royal Court; he was brilliant, then, too, as a werewolf and a free newspaper, tossed hither and thither - is only funny because he's utterly in control of what he's doing. 

The rest of the cast play his scenes for him, to some extent, by their reactions and timing. The scene-stealer knows his place, too. The dinner scene, where Corden satiates his own hunger while serving two masters, is the classic commedia dell'arte set-up, and Bean, Hytner and Corden have re-jigged it in a Brighton pub to something like perfection, without losing the essential Goldoni dynamic.

And within it, Edden's performance, which should be preserved in a jar as a tonic for these dismal times, is an unexpected bonne bouche, an extra and wholly superfluous delight. You won't die laughing, but he might...


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