Review – A Servant to Two Masters, Final Year Actors at the University of Northampton, Jacksons Lane Theatre, Highgate, 7th June 2018

A Servant to Two MastersFrom a play held in such high reverence that one dare not tinker with it at all (The Crucible), to the complete opposite! Carlo Goldoni’s A Servant to Two Masters was written in 1746 and keeps coming back in different guises, most notably recently in Richard Bean’s hilarious and amazingly successful adaptation, One Man Two Guvnors. Its characters are largely taken straight from the Italian tradition of commedia dell’arte, with Trufaldino the servant as the Harlequin character, the aged merchant Pantaloon, the pompous Doctor Lombardi, Brighella the keeper of the tavern, and the high-class lovers (here as Clarice and Silvio). The tradition involved a great deal of jokey asides, plenty of interaction with the audience, music and dance.

Doctor, Pantaloon, Silvio and ClariceThis Final Year Students production was directed by the creative and brilliant Mr Frank Wurzinger, whom I still remember as the superb Doctor Zee in Flathampton. I still have his prescription for a vodka shot. I can think of few people more suited to bringing this kind of play to life. There are, however, two aspects of the direction that I think didn’t help the presentation of the show. In the centre of the large acting space of the Jacksons Lane Theatre they created a smaller space – a raised platform where 95% of the activity took place. This was in front of an equally small, closed, proscenium arch curtain. Whilst this may have given absolutely the right impression of a theatrical staging, it also reduced the acting space and made it feel really cramped and claustrophobic. There were also two small trampolines either side of the stage, which the characters/actors had either to bounce on, or bounce off, to enter or leave the acting space. Whilst this initially was an amusing quirk, and I understand it can be a way of creating additional energy with the characters’ entrances, it actually did nothing to serve the purpose of the play other than to reduce the acting space even further. I didn’t sense that the trampolines gave our cast any additional energy. Only Robert Barnes, as the drunken Florindo waiting for his food, used the trampoline entry/exit to additional comic effect with a drunken bounce.

Terrell OswaldIn retrospect, this was always going to be a very difficult play to get right, requiring massively strong ensemble playing and split-second choreographic precision. I had high hopes for this, but I’m sorry to say that didn’t happen. For this to work it needed to be as slick as a tub of Brylcreem, but regrettably much of it was quite slapdash, sacrificing accuracy for madcap. And while half the cast nailed it, the other half spent the evening pulling out those aforementioned nails.

Emilia OwenThe one person who was absolutely supreme on that stage, and gave the best performance I’d seen him give, was Terrell Oswald, who invested the Pantaloon with just the right amount of dignity and pomposity so that when his world turns upside down it’s genuinely funny. A superb stage presence, perfect timing, and, as always with Mr Oswald, an unexpectedly agile physical performance. First rate. My other “personal best performance” award would go to Emilia Owen as Clarice; brilliant facial expressions, an excellent balance of portraying the character’s true emotions as well as fulfilling the commedia dell’arte stock role, and terrific vocal command. A really enjoyable performance.

Robert BarnesRobert Barnes never fails to provide a polished performance and his Florindo was accomplished and technically strong, as he persisted with the serious nature of the role whether he was screaming drunk or made to look ridiculous, covered in a face-pack with accompanying cucumber. And Jac Burbidge played the otherwise dullish character of Silvio with a well-balanced mixture of courtliness and cheekiness that never strayed into self-indulgence. I enjoyed Bryony Ditchburn’s performance as Beatrice but I did get heartily sick of the sock and two apples down the front of the pants. To quote Stephen Sondheim’s I Never Do Anything Twice: “once, yes, once for a lark; twice, though, loses the spark”.

Jac BurbidgeThere was a lot of good in this production, but at the end it felt like it had been bogged down by a ragged end-of-term mentality that I didn’t share. Still, there were plenty of laughs and it went down very well with the audience, so what do I know?

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