Lenny Henry is superb in Shakespeare’s shortest, most farcical comedy. The funnyman brings pathos and gravitas as well as comic relief as Antipholus of Syracuse. But Dominic Cooke’s production lacks the fizz and clarity of National Theatre hit One Man, Two Guvnors – despite the fact that this play doubles the double acts, with two servants chasing two bosses.
Cooke’s production struggles to get past exposition. For preposterous reasons (which are over- explained on stage in a ponderous mime involving a bungled helicopter rescue), Antipholus and his long-lost twin (also named Antipholus) wash up in Ephesus accompanied by their long-lost twin servants – football shirt-wearing knockabouts who both go by the name of Dromio.
The ensuing mistaken-identity shenanigans take place in the seedy underworld of an international port city. Its ruler is a white cockney gangster (Ian Burfield’s Duke); the local Antipholus (Chris Jarman) is a businessman married to a pouting Essex girl (Claudie Blakley); and Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse (Henry and Lucian Msamati) are naive recent immigrants, doing voodoo signs to ward off harm from the local “witches” (i.e. prostitutes and ladyboys).
Cooke’s setting exposes the play’s politics, placing it in the context of globalisation gone mad. But the extra grit weighs down the hectic action nearly as much as the poorly choreographed crowd chase including a real ambulance.
Despite a great four-man band who soundtrack multicultural confusion by singing British pop songs in Romanian, the production lacks oomph. The Olivier stage, stacked with Bunny Christie’s clanging multi-storey design, makes the thin run-around comedy look draughty.
There’s fun in the show’s best double-act: Blakley and Michelle Terry as bottle-blonde sisters tottering around after the wrong man. And there’s sublime minor work from Amit Shah and René Zagger, who deserve bigger roles. It should warm up in the run, but there isn’t quite enough fun to justify all the running around.
By Caroline McGinn on March 16 2012 6.32am