THEATRE / Doubly masterful: Jeffrey Wainwright reviews The Servant of Two Masters

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The Independent Culture
NEVER have I seen a better stage performance by a standard lamp. It can crane forward curiously only to fall back like a pine tree in shock. At the eventual triumph of love it dances in the air like a demented bar-bell. It is run close, though, by a convector heater that can fall so flat in astonishment it looks beyond revival.

Stones, it is said, cry out, but this is a different level of animation altogether. Clearly, when the director Phelim McDermott and the designer Julian Crouch set out to breathe life into an old classic, they take the phrase seriously.

The classic is Carlo Goldoni's 18th-century Venetian comedy The Servant of Two Masters. The plot is a comedy of errors occasioned by Truffaldino's attempt to get double 'rumineration' by serving two masters at once. That it turns out that one master is in fact a mistress, and that they are parted lovers, would make the traditionally over-worked doors of farce come off their hinges were it not that they have the same mobile life as the rest of the furniture. The trick of perspective played in these effects - trompe- fauteuil, I suppose it might be called - stands at the very heart of the production.

We arrive from the sea, the stage billowing blue, dotted by ships before the skyline appears and the coverlet is drawn away to reveal a version of Venice as it might appear in a pop-up book. After this wonderful beginning we are collectively willing the show to challenge us with more invention, and as each coup comes - from a pair of pages always arriving to provide swish sounds for the sword-play (and, hilariously, having to call up reinforcements at the unexpected appearance of a revolver), to a humming and waltzing forest - we are warmly invited to enjoy the theatrical game with the broadest of winks. All of this is a joy.

The acting, too, led by Toby Jones's Truffaldino, is superb and further evidence of the widening influence of the expressive, physical style in contemporary British theatre. Jones is a skilful and engaging clown. The translators (David Turner and Paul Lapworth) describe him as moving 'like an uncooked sausage' and, indeed, he scrambles from frying-pan to fire and back again in perpetually pink discomfort. He see-saws between resentful pessimism and ineffable optimism, at one moment insisting we all go home since the game's up, then trying to stick together torn-up letters with the remark that 'literacy's much overrated'. He is supported by a vibrant company. They go on to the International Goldoni Festival in Italy and should do so with the cheers of packed houses ringing in their ears.

To 16 Oct, Quarry Theatre, West Yorks Playhouse, Leeds (0532 445346)

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