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A CurtainUp London Review
The Servant of Two Masters

Harlequin was a zanni; a comic character hailing from the mountains of Bergamot, who was both as thick as a post and as sly as a fox and who specialised in all sorts of acrobatics --- Lee Hall in his introduction to his adaptation of Goldoni's The Servant of Two Masters

Lee Hall, well known for his original play Spoonface Steinberg and his adaptation of Brecht's Mr Puntilla and his Man Mutti, has brought up to date The Servant of Two Masters with which Goldoni broke with commedia dell'arte tradition and wrote down the script for his comedians. In Jason Watkins Mr. Hall has a star zanni who plays Truffaldino, the servant, who in trying to fill both his wallet and his stomach, attempts to hold down two jobs. It is a variation on the mix up of twin masters and servants used in Italian comedy going back to Roman times.

With Tim Supple in the director's chair the glistering farce moves at speedboat rather than gondola pace through eighteenth century Venice. Florindo (Ariyon Bakare) has been forced to flee after killing his lover's brother in a duel in Turin. Beatrice, his lover (Claire Cox) has come to Venice, disguised as her brother Federigo Rasponi, in Pantomime Boy tradition, (cross dressing of a girl as a boy in the peculiarly British, popularist Christmas entertainment) to collect the proceeds of his business ventures in sun dried tomatoes and so pay to get Florindo off the hook. Clarice (Nikki Amuka-Bird) was engaged to Federigo but since the news of his death, has fallen for Silvio, (Orlando Seale).

These are the stock characters of Italian comedy -- the sickly sweet and soppy young lovers, Clarice and Silvio; the heroic and histrionic lovers, Beatrice and Federigo. There are also the idiotic fathers -- Dr Lombardi, (Geoffrey Beevers), Silvio's school masterly parent in mortar board and billowing academic gown; Clarice's father, Pantaloon, (Paul Bentall) giving us a "Basil Fawlty" (John Cleese's classic hotel keeper role) type with lanky legs that collapse under him and plenty of grimacing, fall out with each other. In his sumptuous red velvet smoking jacket, velvet slippers and red velvet fez Pantaloon looks a complete ass. Even his dialogue has that "Fawlty" ring about it, "Go and fry in hell, you overeducated stoat".

Smeraldina, (Michelle Butterly) the feisty maid with knee high leather boots who falls in love with Truffaldino the scruffily dressed Harlequin who with his round elfin face and a hairstyle that looks like a cross between a hedgehog and a wet dish mop.

Robert Innes Hopkins' wooden set, painted in terracotta and yellow, turquoise and green, uses the traverse stage to good effect for this physical and energetic comedy. At either end of the long thin stage, which bisects the audience, the archways are transformed with a change of doors or railings or curtains to shift the scene from park to palazzo to inn. From the ceiling we have a potted box shrub, and a pair of red velour chairs descending. There's even a falling chandelier . . . well, maybe not quite falling! The hotel has two doors for our servant to race in and out of in his attempt to serve a meal to each master simultaneously.

I particularly liked the chaotic meal scene in Brighella's (Kevork Malikyan) hotel in which three cast members double up as a trio of comic waiters who briskly try to get on with their work while Truffaldino intercepts the food. Much is made of the innuendo of a grisly named suet pudding with currants, Spotted Dick, and Truffaldino, ever hungry ends up eating for two, flinging rissoles into the audience and dunking his whole head in the ragout. Lunging from one escapade to the next, Truffaldino ducks and dives, cartwheels and flick flacks in the tradition of great clowning.

There are plenty of new jokes to replace Goldoni's rather dated ones with Truffaldino claiming "This was a miracle of time management". I think Goldoni would have approved of Hall's adaptation, as escapees from a working day in the city will enjoy this feel good light hearted comedy. In the play, they say, "Love is better than a night in the theatre". I think that the jury might still be out on that one!

Oh and watch out if you sit in the front row. You may find yourself the butt of some of Truffaldino's improvised humour.

Mirandolina -- a Goldoni comedy revived earlier this season Off-Broadway

A Servant of Two Masters
produced by The Royal Shakespeare Company
Written by Carlo Goldoni
Adapted by Lee Hall
Directed by Tim Supple
Jason Watkins
With Orlando Seale, Paul Bentall, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Geoffrey Beevers, Michelle Butterly, Kevork Malikyan, Claire Cox, Ariyon Bakare.
Design: Robert Innes Hopkins
Lighting Design: Paul Anderson
Sound Design: Andrea J Cox
Fights by: Malcolm Ransom
Running time: 2 hours and five minutes with an interval
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 10th February 2000 performance at The Young Vic, The Cut, Waterloo, London SE1 Box Office 0207 928 6363 Performances to 11th March 2000
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