In the 80s hit comedy improvisational show "Whose Line Is It Anyway", one of my favourite games was "Theatre Styles" in which a well-known scene was played out in wildly inappropriate styles - say the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet performed as if in a science-fiction epic, a French flic or by the instantly recognisable characters of the commedia dell'arte. And that was my favourite style, because the actors could adopt absurd comic poses, speak lines in absurdly affected voices and corpse to their heart's content - all that chaos was accommodated within the commedia dell'arte. (Jonathan Pryce and John Sessions were very, very keen on it).
The Glorious Ones (at the Landor Theatre until 7 April) mixes fact and fiction, as the eponymous troupe of commedia dell'arte actors tour 16th century Italy performing routines half-improvised, half-rehearsed for the amusement of the populace and once, disastrously, for the French Court who were as unamused as Queen Victoria. On stage, stock characters (the tart with a heart, the quack doctor, the thwarted lover) bounced off each other like married couples finishing each other's sentences. Off stage (wouldn't you know it) the actors bounce off each other less comfortably, as ambition, unrequited love and the creeping feeling that the format was going stale slowly reveal fissures in the hitherto happy band.
As the leader (and real-life giant of the form) Flaminio Scala, Mike Christie sings pleasantly enough, but lacks the charisma needed to make us believe that he could hold together such a disparate set of driven performers for years - this production marks Christie's musical debut and he'll get better. Fortunately, he is supported by a fine ensemble cast in which Kate Brennan shines as cleavage and corset concubine Columbina and Jodie Beth Meyer finds real pathos as the company's comic dwarf wryly observing the others' foibles. A group of musicians play beautifully behind a partially transparent scene, getting through over twenty songs packed with gentle melodies and (often) earthy lyrics.
Director Robert McWhir has followed up his hugely successful revival of Ragtime last autumn by going back to the same writing team (Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty) but has not managed to generate the same kind of emotional punch that filled this intimate space so successfully as the days shortened. The Glorious Ones may not be a glorious production, but it's a fascinating and ambitious introduction to one of theatre's most influential forms, the legacy of which suffuses much that we see on stage, on screen and in Comedy Clubs today.