Distortions and Delight


National Theatre Live, Broadcast September 15th, 2011


We live in an age of wonders.  Smart phones.  Wireless technology. Instant mashed potato.  And now we have the growing trend for broadcasting theatrical performances to cinema screens all around the country – and indeed the world.


Like any technology, it is marvellous when it works.  The screening of the National Theatre’s hit comedy was marred by a peculiar compression of the cast. On screen they appeared to be like squashed munchkins with elongated noses, fingers and shoes.  The aspect ratio of the screen was all to buggery, as I believe the technical explanation is.   During the interval, I tracked down a member of the cinema staff. He claimed the problem was with the source: it was being broadcast in this distorted manner.  I doubted him completely. It seemed to me more of a local problem – the wrong lens on the projector, but my words carry no weight at Cineworld in Birmingham.   I would be interested to hear from anyone present at a different picturehouse to learn if the problem was widespread.


As a consequence, I didn’t take in much of the opening scene, so distracted was I by this mutation of the actors.  Gradually, I was able to see beyond the distortion and settle back for a very amusing piece of theatre indeed.  You don’t need to know the show’s provenance.  You don’t need to know it is an adaptation of Goldoni’s Servant Of Two Masters from the eighteenth century.  You don’t need to know it draws heavily on commedia dell’arte and Plautus for its characters and plot devices.  I, of course, was as smug as hell to be able to recognise these elements in Richard Bean’s version, which translates the action from Italy to Brighton in 1963.  But then, I can be annoying like that.


The cast oozes excellence with their heightened playing.  There is not a weak moment in the entire show.  I particularly enjoyed Jemima Rooper, playing in drag as her murdered twin brother, and Oliver Chris as her toff boyfriend Stanley, who seemed to utter most of the best lines in the script.   The piece is dominated by James Corden as the hapless man who finds himself with two guvnors.  His Henshall comes across as an affable twat, getting himself into and out of scrapes with considerable skill at physical comedy.  Corden, fashionably disliked on forums like Twitter, won me over but was in danger of being upstaged by a declaiming Daniel Rigby as would-be actor Alan and supporting player Tom Eddon as the deaf and doddering octogenarian waiter.   Director Nicholas Hytner keeps the pace just short of manic and the action is only in danger of losing its grip on the audience when tedious skiffle band The Craze is wheeled on to cover the scene changes.  They outstay their welcome very rapidly – I thought the second act would never get started – but mercifully their duties were taken over in the second half by various cast members doing party pieces.


The advantages of watching live theatre in a cinema include the close-ups and changes of viewpoint that you don’t get in a theatre auditorium, but what you don’t get is a real sense of being present at the event.  Shots of the actual audience enjoying themselves only serve to remind you of the distance between yourself and the performance.   That being said, this delightful, farcical comedy came across really well and I am now keener than ever to see it in the flesh.

About williamstafford

Novelist (Brough & Miller, sci fi, historical fantasy) Theatre critic http://williamstaffordnovelist.wordpress.com/ http://www.amazon.co.uk/-/e/B008AD0YGO and Actor - I can often be found walking the streets of Stratford upon Avon in the guise of the Bard! View all posts by williamstafford

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