Toga! Toga! Toga! The actors in Christopher Luscombe's production are kitted out for a Roman romp, and there are burlesque sight and sound gags aplenty, as well as echoes of Frankie Howerd and his Carry On comrades. But the merriment seems meagre and forced--if a stray Ephesan fun-seeker poked his head in, he would likely ask: "Where's the party?"
One reason is the daunting size of the Globe, particularly for this comedy, in which, for much of the time, only two actors hold the stage--or, rather, let it droop. But this problem can be overcome with passion and technique. Here, however, Luscombe allows his listening actors (this is particularly noticeable when there are several of them) to simply stand about, like dejected job-seekers. And the trite, shallow framework he has chosen, more suitable for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, suppresses any real, profound feeling--though some of the actors, such as Richard O'Callaghan, give him no trouble on this score.
Never have I heard the old father's tale of losing half his family sound more like a laundry list. If Eliot Giuralarocca (Dromio of Ephesus) had any less stage presence, he would be invisible, and, as his brother, Sam Alexander is merely pleasant in a tentative sort of way. They are not helped by Janet Bird's costumes for the Dromios, which make one want to look anywhere else: cantaloupe-coloured shirts and leggings and an explosion of head and facial hair that turns them into ill-favoured Nibelungs.
The fault is not only with this cast--as the recent revival of A Funny Thing itself showed, we no longer have the type of actors big enough and elemental enough for such clowning, actors of atomic force who are not only a law but a world unto themselves. Yet should we want them in this play? Luscombe, in effect, wants to return us to the world of Plautus, the Roman author whose comedies inspired both Shakespeare and Larry Gelbart. But, while the latter stayed true to the original spirit, Shakespeare added ambiguity, melancholy, poetry - qualities that get the hook in this unfeeling production, which has been sliced down to two hours, interval included.
Sarah Woodward's Adriana, a sort of Prunella Scales on speed, is amusing in a superficial manner. But this performance - wildly at odds with the rest - needs to be trimmed of some of the writhing and flopping that make the actress look as if she is prostrating herself before the god of easy laughs.
Instead of embodying the gentleness and grace that bewitch Antipholus of Syracuse, Laura Rees's Luciana behaves with stilted coyness, seeming astonished by the words that leave her mouth. That Antipholus, Andrew Havill, is a goofy charmer, a toga-clad Bertie Wooster who at first looks like a bewildered horse, then, as he is bombarded with unearned treats, like a horse that has done something really rather clever. As his smug twin, Simon Wilson lacks the arrogance that should emphasise the comedy of his humiliation.
Darlene Johnson, as the abbess, contributes some much-needed gravity, but this is undermined by having her stroll round the stage like an estate agent showing off original features. Although the conception of Cate Debenham-Taylor's courtesan, like much else here, owes more to TV than to the stage, this tootsie in a mini-toga is surprisingly sweet and endearing. Shouldn't she be playing Luciana?
With this production, management is certainly giving the groundlings what they want, but it's the kind of show that will confirm the fears of those who, before the Globe opened, thought it would be a theatre for lowbrow Americans. Indeed, I would go further - this is the kind of comedy that would appeal to the French.
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