There is much excellent playing in Kathryn Hunter's new production of Moliere's little known commedia piece Les Fourberies de Scapin, translated by Jacek Laskowski as Wiseguy Scapino. Rae Smith, the designer, has festooned the Emlyn Williams Theatre, always a flexible and stimulating space, with Neapolitan washing, starched rigid into a riot of grotesque attitudes. The cacophonous dockland city is updated to somewhere around the 1960s, and thus into the heyday both of youthful fecklessness and mafioso stereotype. From this opening shake, the show goes off like a bottle of pop.
Few things are sharper than the co-director Marcello Magni's first entrance as the quicksilver servant Scapino. Chased by a thug with a gun, in a trice he has donned a wig, conjured up a napkin to tuck into his belt and is leaning against a cafe counter that has sprung obediently from the floor just in time to offer his pursuer a cappuccino. He is clearly a man to have on your side. Octavio is fortunate that Scapino is his father's servant, since he has just entered into a secret marriage, only to discover that paternal wrath is about to come home sooner than he'd bargained for.
Strengthening the resolve of Toby Jones's putty-faced and lily-livered Octavio is Scapino's next task. Unfortunately, the Stanislavskian conviction with which he role-plays the fearsome patriarch Argante - which culminates in his bearing down on the youth with his sidekick, Sylvestro (Toby Sedgwick) improvising stilts by moving stools under his feet - leaves Octavio gibbering and utterly unable to be reassured that the threat to 'cut his dick off' was only a turn of phrase.
When Argante appears in person he has something to live up to, but, remarkably, Kathryn Hunter herself - substituting in the role at short notice - is instantly compelling. She is a godfather who could fit in Brando's vest pocket, though her own immaculate cream waistcoat is swollen so corpulently that the walrus moustache is almost permanently facing heavenwards and her voice is like the stirring of an anchor chain. Men are shot for even setting foot on Argante's red carpet, and the ingenious acrobatics with which Sylvestro, pigeon-toed in his winkle-pickers, avoids this fate is an incidental delight.
The plot has nothing much to do with these riches, other than to require Scapino, 'a diesel of intrigue' as the feisty translation calls him, to outwit and fleece Argante, and the other tyrannical father Geronte (Patrice Naiambana), on behalf of both their sons and their paramours, some of whom, naturally, turn out to be long-lost. There isn't really enough to sustain the piece far beyond its dazzling opening half-hour, and though the show recovers for a spirited finale, it sags badly through the middle.
It is there that some economy in the comic playing would have been welcome. Several of the actors, including Marcello Magni himself, are Theatre de Complicite alumni, and the verve and extravagance with which they tackle this kind of commedia dell'arte work is beyond question. But we are given too much: too many gags and reactions over-extended, a reluctance to cut reiterative scenes if the actors can get a spot out of them. This is a lively, witty and enjoyable production - it's just that we could have done with less of a good thing.
Continues until 29 May (Box-office: 0352 755114).