THEATRE / Expect the unexpected: The Venetian Twins - Barbican Theatre

Wacky 'unscheduled' events are such an expected feature of Michael Bogdanov's productions that an audience would only faint with surprise if they failed to occur. You certainly wonder how many of them are taken in when his version of Goldoni's Venetian Twins is brought to a juddering halt by an accident in which a supposed punter is impaled on a brolly. Technicians, ambulancemen and police invade the stage - along with Bogdanov himself and Hermes from the production of Ion next door. It's all so laborious it makes you long to slip out to the telephones and put in a real summons for the police. The result would be very Pirandello.

Goldoni's comedy of identical twins who cause chaos when they converge on Verona was first given the Bogdanov treatment at the Swan in Stratford. It worked much better there than in this Barbican main-stage transfer. Partly, this is because the Swan, with its combination of scale and intimacy, is a venue where frame-busting mayhem can have an immediacy for the whole house. From my seat, halfway back in the stalls, it all seemed very remote, the vicarious embarrassment lacking true tingle.

This time, too, the deliberate gaffes, the lines fluffed so that the actors can air some 'off the cuff' wit, seemed gratingly mechanical. Such practices destroy your pleasure in the occasional genuine spontaneity.

If the show is still worth seeing, it's because of David Troughton's wonderfully engaging double as both twins - the one a George Formby North Country bumpkin, the other a narcissistic roue with a sense of honour. Troughton must have nightmares about the lightning off-stage changing he has to effect: he has to exit at one point plastered in eggs and fruit and re-emerge, in a tryst, drop-dead dapper.

There are scenes where you can feel the material yearning for a subtler approach than it gets here, such as the play's best sequence, where the brighter twin winds up in what he thinks is a brothel, chatting up his sibling's fiancee (Sarah Woodward). He thinks they are talking about imminent sex: she thinks he's agreeing to marry her now. All aroused, he's immobilised with his trousers round his ankles by the girl rushing out to get a couple of witnesses. But her progression in his eyes during this encounter, from being a hard-faced tart to a woman worthy of respect, needs to be registered with more delicacy than the direction allows.

Because the general tone is so knockabout, the death- darkened ending has nothing to emerge from and hence feels like a mere formal convenience. After all, Troughton could scarcely be reunited with himself.

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