(Clare Brennan’s article appeared in the Guardian, 4/2/2024; Photo: Pete Stonier.)

New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme
A first-rate cast delight in controlled chaos of the highest order in Conrad Nelson’s seamless revival of Richard Bean’s hit play

A couple on the stairs behind me, leaving the theatre. He: “And a band! What more could you ask?” She: “I can’t remember the last time I laughed so much…” Carlo Goldoni’s commedia dell’arte-inspired Il Servitore di Due Padroni, written in Venetian dialect about two and a half centuries ago, loses nothing in translation. Richard Bean’s award-garnered version, set in 1963 Brighton, was such a hit after its 2011 launch at the National Theatre in London that it went on to tour the UK three times and travelled abroad to the US, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand.

Good as that was, I think this new staging, by director Conrad Nelson, serves the text better – for two reasons. First, the ensemble is exceptionally strong – not only the 11 actor-musicians, but also the offstage artists (responsible for design, music, lighting, sound, movement and fight choreography and casting), and, like members of a commedia troupe, many are accustomed to working together, especially here, on the New Vic’s in-the-round stage. This gives the production its second advantage: the performers’ depth of rapport makes for seamless interactions and razor-sharp timings; it allows characters that might appear cartoonish to feel touchingly human.

First among equals is Michael Hugo, possibly the greatest actor-clown of the stage today, his physicality and rapport with audiences unmatched. Hugo is Henshall, the man who tries to double his income by secretly serving two guvnors staying in the same hotel (and unwittingly connected by one of the many plot convolutions). The famous central scene, where a hungry Henshall serves both guvnors a meal while trying to keep them apart, is taken to another level by the introduction of a hole in the stage, with stairs to a lower floor (Lis Evans’s design is played to eye-popping effect by Nick Haverson’s waiter, proving that there is no such thing as a small role). All in all, a hilarious combination of clockwork-clever plot and controlled chaos from a company who delight in delivering laughter to their audience.

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