The first time I saw Richard Bean’s play, here in 2012, it was full of shocking and delightful surprises and it was brilliant.
The second time I saw it, at the same venue this week, I was prepared for much of what was coming – and it was still brilliant.
Taking as his starting point an 18th Century comedy by Carlo Goldini, Bean produced a play any of the old ‘Carry On’ stars would have loved to be part of (there’s even a photo of Barbara Windsor in the programme, the famous ‘busting out’ one from Carry On Camping).
It opens with a skiffle band, setting the early 60s scene. It’s Brighton, a place full of gangsters and colourful con-men (haven’t you read Brighton Rock?).
Into it flounders Francis Henshall, a tubby man in a bad suit who unwittingly finds himself working for two guvnors with violent tendencies.
One is public school spiv Stanley Stubbers (Patrick Warner) and the other is Rachel Crabbe (Alicia Davies) who is disguised as her late twin brother who has just been murdered – in fact, just before the party organised by Charlie ‘The Duck’ Clench (Shaun Williamson) to celebrate the engagement of the dead man and his somewhat reluctant intended, Charlie’s shrill and intellectually challenged daughter Dolly (Emma Barton).
The plot will lead you on a merry dance, as indeed it does poor Francis who – substantially personified here by Gavin Spokes in a role originally written for James Corden – increasingly engages with the audience as the pressure and confusion builds around him.
It’s as messy as a panto with lots of visual jokes but there’s fodder for the brain, too. With its tongue in its cheek, its characters muse about phones you can carry, a female Prime Minister and pubs with food!
This National Theatre production, performed as ever with infectious gusto, has lost none of its freshness and I’m still laughing inwardly at some of the priceless lines, including the least decorous reflection on married love that you’ll ever hear.