First Night: A pleasure trip down comedy's Grand Canal

The Servant Of Two Masters RSC Stratford

THOSE ITALIAN words, Commedia dell'Arte, have been known to strike dread into the hearts of intelligent playgoers. Done fast and well, this style of theatre, with its formulaic slapstick and its stock types, can be as exhilarating as a trip down the Grand Canal. Done ploddingly, as is too often the case in this country, and it can feel to an audience more like being stuck in Pizza Express on a wet day in Wigan.

Tim Supple's wonderfully entertaining new production of A Servant of Two Masters by Goldoni falls smack into the former category.

The last outing the RSC gave this prolific 18th-century writer was four years ago when David Troughton had a hugesuccess playing both a George Formby-type country bumpkin and his sophisticated identical sibling in The Venetian Twins.Now it is the turn of Jason Watkins, one of our most versatile and accomplished actors, to notch up an even more elating triumph.

The difference is that instead of playing a pair of separate people, Watkins performs the role of Truffaldino, a servant who, desperate to fill his empty stomach, snatches the opportunity to moonlight and hold down a couple of jobs simultaneously, unbeknown to his two masters. As fate would have it, one of these is a woman in male disguise (Claire Cox) who just happens to be searching for her lover who just happens to be - yes, you've got it - Truffaldino's other boss.

Calling his ruse "a miracle of time management" in Lee Hall's sparky and very funny adaptation, the split personality servant also makes a good class point about his "downsizing of the servant economy". If the masters had thought of it "it'd be an innovation".

The best bits of the show are the elaborate physical routines which Watkins, with his urchin baby face, half-mast trousers and cart-wheeling dexterity, delivers with a deliciously unforced humour. He is the perfect antidote to Commedia dell'Arte's most frequent exponent in England, the roguish Marcello Magni.

Here, by contrast, you get a master class in fleet, mischievous comic timing just by watching Watkins attempt to orchestrate the delivery of two copious meals to adjacent hotel rooms, housing his divergent masters. His hunger keeps throwing an enormous spanner into the works and he ends up practically making love to the ratatouille.

At one point, a character tells another to "get a move on, or Venice will have sunk". Supple, in this witty traverse-formation staging, and a cast rich in idiosyncrasy do not need this advice.

Well timed seasonally, Servant is a delightfully well paced alternative to pantomime.

Paul Taylor

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