A great hunk of greed: James Corden as Francis Henshall in "One Man, Two Guvnors" (Johan Persson/National Theatre)
Richard Bean is the nearest thing to a comic genius among contemporary playwrights: febrile, irreverent, and gifted with the ability to make dialogue crackle along in a way which makes the jokes seem entirely natural, however bizarre the circumstances. I thought him under-praised for The Heretic at the Royal Court recently, a rare example of the politically predictable London stage turning a quizzical eye on the pieties of the global warming argument.
Not much danger of him lacking esteem for One Man, Two Guvnors though. His reworking of Goldoni's 18th-century tale of identity-swapping and servant-master shenanigans has the National's occasionally upright audiences in helpless convulsions. Bean takes the classical architecture of Goldoni's Venetian farce and resettles his characters in seamy Sixties Brighton, where Francis Henshall (James Corden) plays servant to two masters. A gangland boss, Charlie "the Duck", is trying to marry off his nice-but-dim daughter to a rival's son. He has inconveniently been murdered and is being avenged by his sister in cross-dressing disguise. She is also in love with the modern fop Stanley Stubbers (Oliver Chris) and Corden is secretly working for them both. As their paths cross, Chris delights as a fabulous idiot who seems to have wandered in straight from the Cartier Polo tournament armed with King's Road slang and zero self-knowledge.
The play hinges on the likeability of the rogue, and Corden is a great hunk of greed, manipulation and confusion all in one supremely watchable package. He is a pneumatic version of the Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls: broad-shouldered, self-confident and utterly convinced that he can shape events, whatever the evidence to the contrary. Corden and Bean have crafted a knowing relationship with the audience, making us collude in his scheme to earn two wages at once and deftly manipulating the front row by cadging sandwiches and co-opting trunk-lifters and accomplices. With skiffle band music by Grant Olding to help the action roll along, the famous scene in which the servant dishes up two dinners at once to his different masters, while managing to eat most of it himself, is a tour de force-not least thanks to the doddery elasticity of the waiter (Tom Edden), a boneless wonder when it comes to falling downstairs or bouncing off walls.
Unfettered greed is Corden's speciality, an import from his role as the Essex comfort-eater Smithy in TV's Gavin & Stacey, but perfectly adapted here to the world of Brighton Rock mobsters. In his time, Goldoni pepped up the dying form of commedia dell'arte, so Bean is similarly entitled to breathe new life into the dusty world of farce. One Man, Two Guvnors is a worthy tribute to an old master, as well as a thoroughly modern makeover. It's a sell-out at the National but it will be touring, including dates in Salford, Edinburgh and Birmingham. Do go, though if you're the retiring sort, the front row might not be the place for you.
We're asked to reimagine the oft-performed Much Ado by two more telly heroes, Catherine Tate and David Tennant at the Wyndham's Theatre, in Josie Rourke's first major commercial West End production. This isn't the best advert for her work. When it comes to relocating Shakespeare in different eras, we've been there and done that for a number of years now, so it had better have a point. Setting Much Ado in the vulgar 1980s doesn't really add any dimension to the play beyond wardrobes of shoulder pads, disco music and some brash "re-imagining" of Don John as a frustrated homosexual. Naturally.