Monday, January 2, 2012

Keep 'Em Laughing

Karl Johnson, Celia Imrie, Jonathan Coy, Janie Dee, Robert Glenister and Amy Nuttall Photo: Alastair Muir 2011
London stages are packed to the rafters with comedies right now. And whether this is a sign of the bad economic times or political climate, audiences here have had a wide array of high quality reasons to laugh. In addition to Graham Linehan’s The Ladykillers and Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guvenors I caught two other quite funny enselble casts here this weekend. The Old Vic currently has a revival of Michael Frayn’s industrial strength Noises Off playing to largely sold out audiences. Frayn’s behind—and in front of—the scenes stage comedy has been insanely successful at all times since its premiere almost 30 years ago. Director Lindsay Posner doesn’t mess with a formula that works well. Frayn’s play, much like the other one his characters are rehearsing, “Nothing On,” is all about boxes, doors and plates of sardines. There’s a huge amount of stage business, and much of the laughs and wonderment it inspires comes from the mechanics of getting all of these details right even when they appear to be random mistakes. Probably the biggest star in the cast is Celia Imrie who plays Dotty, the actress playing the housekeeper in “Nothing On.” But everyone has big moments here including Robert Glenister, Jamie Glover, Janie Dee, and Karl Johnson. It's very well done and everyone manages the physical elements well though I admit the show didn't necessarily feel urgent to me in any way which is probably more a product of the source material than the production itself.

Lenny Henry and cast in The Comedy of Errors Photo: Johan Persson/NT 2011
Over at the National Theater, Dominic Cooke has put together a new staging of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors that will be part of the company’s “NT Live” broadcast season later this year. It’s a maximal production with lots of elaborate moving scenery and a full cast. Each pair of twins in this show is cast with two different actors. The Antipholi are played by Chris Jarman and Lenny Henry with the corresponding Dromios played by Daniel Poyser and Lucian Msamati respectively. Identical costumes are used to connect the twins while slight Caribbean accents are used to differentiate the pair from Syracuse from their brothers in Ephesus. It’s all meant to evoke a contemporary urban landscape, which it does quite well. Cooke has left in a bit of the physical and scatological humor that’s associated with the piece, but less so than I’ve seen elsewhere. And while Cooke doesn’t really tell us anything we don’t already know about Shakespeare’s comedy of repeated and continuous mistaken identities, he does give us some grand-scale witty moments such as the huge chase scene in the final act that comes complete with psychiatric hospital orderlies and a working police van all darting around the circular rotating stage. Despite the promise of a gritty urban setting, there's not much sense of malevolence, but it's a pleasant successful comedy.

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