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Arts: Theatre: Tour de farce

COMMEDIA DELL'ARTE - those three Italian words have been known to strike dread into the hearts of intelligent playgoers. Done fast and well, its formulaic slapstick and stock types (harlequin and gang) can be as exhilarating as a pleasure trip down the Grand Canal in the champagne air of a sunny day. Done galumphingly, as is too often the case in this country, and it can feel more like being stuck in Pizza Express on a wet Monday night in Wigan.

I'm relieved to report that Tim Supple's wonderfully entertaining new production of A Servant to Two Masters by Carlo Goldoni falls smack into the former category. Goldoni's last outing by the RSC was four years ago when David Troughton was hugely successful as a country bumpkin and his sophisticated roue of an identical sibling in The Venetian Twins. Now it is Jason Watkins' turn - one of our most versatile, accomplished, and undersung actors - to notch up an even more elating triumph with a not dissimilar tour de force here.

The difference is that instead of playing a pair of distinct people, Watkins performs the role of Truffaldino, a servant who, desperate to fill his empty, neglected stomach, snatches the opportunity to moonlight and hold down a couple of jobs, unbeknownst to the two masters. As fate would have it, one of these is a woman in male disguise (Claire Cox) who just happens to be searching for her lover, who just happens to be - yes, you've got it - Truffaldino's other boss.

The best bits of the show are the elaborate physical routines which Watkins, with his urchin baby-face, half-mast trousers and cartwheeling dexterity, delivers with a deliciously unforced humour. He's the perfect antidote to commedia dell'arte's most frequent exponent in this country - the elephantinely roguish and audience-goosing Marcello Magni. Here you get a master class in fleet, mischievous comic timing from simply watching Watkins attempt to orchestrate the delivery of two copious waiter-service meals to his divergent employers in adjacent hotel rooms. His hunger keeps throwing a spanner in the works, and as his resistance breaks down, he ends up practically having sex with a bowl of ratatouille.

At one point a character tells another to get a move on, or Venice will have sunk. Supple's production, wittily staged in traverse formation, and a cast rich in idiosyncracy takes such advice to heart, delivering a brilliantly pacey and intelligent pantomime for adults.

To 22 Jan, 01789 295623. A version of this review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paper