Writer: Richard Bean
Original Director: Nicholas Hytner
Tour Director: Adam Penford
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
One Man, Two Guvnors boisterously burst onto the theatre scene in 2011, playing the West End and Broadway, winning the Evening Standard’s Best Play award and a Tony for James Corden for Best Actor in a Play. Based on a 1743 Italian Commedia del’Arte play, Servant of Two Masters, one might fear that this National Theatre production might be heavy-going and worthy. Any such thoughts are immediately put out of mind as one enters the auditorium to find skiffle group, The Craze, singing songs by Grant Olding before the show, including energetic washboard playing. The Craze form the pit orchestra throughout and return to the stage, sometimes with cast members playing a variety of standard and non-standard instruments, during scene changes. Indeed the set design from Mark Thompson, is glorious in its simplicity and eccentric appearance, successfully transporting us to the more innocent times of 1963 Brighton and also enabling much of the comedy.
One Man, Two Guvnors is, simply, two hours of high octane fun. The plot is complex, including hapless Francis Henshall who, having been sacked from a skiffle group, finds himself hired by two shady characters to act as their minders. Francis, played knowingly and with exuberance by Gavin Spokes, is keen his two guvnors should not find out about each other, but, sadly, is his own worst enemy. He is very easily confused and often forgets which guvnor asked him to do what task, causing him to squirm as he lies spectacularly badly to cover his tracks. But neither guvnor is quite what he seems, of course. In a tale that encompasses mistaken identity, cross-dressing and several sets of star-crossed lovers, somehow Francis snatches victory from the jaws of defeat.
During the show, there is much that mimics pantomime but that never quite descends into panto, despite lengthy and memorable audience participation pieces which seem to tell us that we, cast and audience, are all in it together. There is a lovely chase sequence near the beginning and a truly memorable extended slapstick sketch to close the first act in which Francis tries to serve his two guvnors their lunches in a hotel while keeping them apart and also trying to grab some food himself. The timing of this cartoonish scene is superb, with the audience gasping as octogenarian Alfie, (Michael Dylan) assisted by a variable speed heart pacemaker, is repeatedly struck by doors and props or sent flying off stage. By the interval, the rapid pace has made the audience breathless.
All the characters are caricatures, much larger than life, that never quite stray into two-dimensionality. Although the audience spend a good proportion of their time laughing uproariously, there are moments of contrast and true pathos. For example, there is a terrific piece of wordplay when Francis, lying to get out of a fix, says a friend’s guvnor is dead. The following quick-fire wordplay would be worthy of inclusion in any Two Ronnies sketch but the mood changes dramatically as Patrick Warner, playing upper class criminal, Stanley Stubbers, believes that his love is indeed dead. The next few moments as he, bereft, imagines a life alone are enough to silence the audience and bring them to the verge of tears themselves; of course, the slapstick restarts soon after and normal service is resumed.
The ensemble cast are superb with no weak link: Shaun Williamson as father of the bride Charlie Clench is suitably menacing; Edward Hancock’s turn as aspiring actor Alan Dangle is quite gloriously over-the top; Alicia Davies’ cross-dressing turn is a joy to behold and Jasmyn Banks’ thoroughly stupid but glamorous Pauline Clench treads a fine line successfully.
One Man, Two Guvnors is a rip-roaring night of pure pleasure. Your face and belly will both ache after watching it and basking in its warmth and humour. Not to be missed.
Photo: Johan Persson | Runs until 21st March