Behind the period disguises you spot familiar television faces. There's James Bolam, formerly one of The Likely Lads, beneath the choleric complexion and wig of Sir George Thunder. There's Andrew Sachs, Manuel from Fawlty Towers, with a grubby, hairy face, playing his sidekick, John Dory. There's Benjamin Whitrow, the wine-merchant from FFizz, below the wide-brimmed hat and lank hair of the hypocritical Quaker, Ephraim Smooth.
It's a wise move, having this lot. When you have a play that packs in so many familiar storylines - mistaken identities, orphan discovers parents, hypocrite exposed - how it all turns out is of next to no interest. The play lives or dies on the charm of the playing. Sams has assembled a lovable cast. The smaller parts - Mark Addy as the farmer's son and Paul Sirr as the manservant Zachariah - are just as nicely characterised as the leads, and wherever possible Sams throws them an extra gag. He puts the props department to some lengths to achieve this: viz the farmer's name is Gammon, so when someone calls out for him at the Inn, someone else enters delivering half a pig.
The main burden of charm, in this rosy- hued, indulgent evening lies with Rover, the strolling player. The coltish Anton Lesser excels here as the irrepressibly romantic actor, who pulls off the difficult feat of enlisting our sympathies whilst talking in quotations. If you have a maidenly aunt, whom you are always meaning to take to a matinee, then Sams's debut production for the National - witty, sentimental and inoffensive - is the ticket.
At the beginning of Richard III at Stratford, two screens slide back and a bug-eyed figure in red leers and hobbles downstage. He opens his mouth to utter some of the most famous lines in Shakespeare and a fanfare interrupts him. Richard stops, while Edward IV and his foppish court troop on. Like a court jester, he then delivers the first half of his soliloquy to the king. The lights switch and Richard delivers the rest to the audience. It gets us over some hackneyed lines and establishes that Richard adopts roles. But so what? Shakespeare opens with a major dramatic effect, and here they are at Stratford, blowing it.
Dramatic impact is frequently constrained by director Steven Pimlott's endless fund of ideas. Time and again, with Tobias Hoheisel's dreary, repetitive set, screens slide in and out, doors open and close and a platform trundles up and down. All this activity merely traps the actors in a design. In the days of Wild Oats they used to bowdlerise Shakespeare: in our own time, they conceptualise him.
David Troughton's highly theatrical Richard is many things - clownish, petulant, chilling - but most of all, he's over the top. It makes it hard for the others. The keen encounter of wits between Richard and Lady Anne (a pale, faint Jennifer Ehle) turns into a clash of acting styles, while the subtle, restrained Buckingham (John Nettles) seems to have been drafted in from a more measured, solid production.
You long for the actors to take over. Michael Siberry is a lyrical Clarence, but when he's in the Tower telling us what an awful dream he had last night he has to compete with a musical underscore. Presumably there isn't enough music in the verse so the wind section is there to lend support. The scenes that emerge most powerfully in this production are the ones where actors square up without directorial fuss: Richard asking Queen Elizabeth (Susan Brown) for her daughter; or lying in his mother's lap, while she (Diana Coupland) heaps curses on him. The older women are clear and strong. It's the men you worry about: Buckingham aside, they seem an unlikely bunch to take into battle.
From the opening scenes you wonder how Pimlott's extreme version of Richard will measure up in the final scenes. How will a twisted jester assemble an army for Bosworth? The answer is, he doesn't. The production sidelines the battle in favour of a study of Richard's personal disintegration: a man whose mother didn't love him. Troughton's Richard turns out to be the first king to suffer mortal wounds fighting his own conscience.
It's not easy to tell that Gangster No1 is written by two people. The writing team of Louis Mellis and David Scinto have been together for five years and the colourful, violent authorial voice is a seamless one. It's also a familiar one: since Quentin Tarantino, violent writing has become a crowded profession. But it is easy to tell that Gangster No1 is written by actors. It's packed with mean, juicy speeches that work wonderfully in front of the shaving mirror. Indeed one of the characters, called Bent Copper (Kenneth Colley) gives most of his wry, hangdog performance in the bathroom. The other figures dotted round the stage are equally solitary. The haggard, forgetful Richard Johnson gives most of his performance sitting on a prison bed, the quavery John Cater sits by a gloomy window and the eponymous gangster, Peter Bowles, looking like an East End version of Somerset Maugham, sips whisky in an armchair. You might guess that it's a first play. Or since it consists mainly of monologues, not quite a play. Like the tape of an opera, it's all arias and little recitative.
This story of criminal life since the 1960s is full of adrenalin, snappy jokes and an easy-going narcissism, and Jonathan Kent's high-pressure production allows a fine cast to deliver some electric performances. Bowles's account of murdering a man is such a baroque celebration of violence that it's tempting to see the one performance (20 Sept) that will be interpreted in sign language.
'Wild Oats': Lyttelton, SE1 (0171 928 2252). 'Richard III': Stratford RSC (01789 295623). 'Gangster': Almeida, N1 (0171 359 4404).Reuse content