Writer: Richard Bean
Director: Lotte Wakeham
Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors is a modern classic. Bean adapts an 18th-century farce by Carlo Goldoni in a manner which is true to the spirit of Commedia dell’arte, with its themes of masters, lovers and servants, but at the same time keeps it fresh and irreverent.
In 1963 the psychotic twin brother of Rachel Crabbe (Siobhan Athwal) is killed (before the play starts) by her lover Stanley Stubbins (Laurie Jamieson). Seeking to recover debts owed to her late brother Rachel assumes his identity and, in disguise, engages loveable idiot Francis Henshall (Jordan Pearson) to act as a minder as she confronts the criminal underworld in Brighton. The perpetually hungry Francis craftily offers to serve a second guvnor at the same time and takes a job with Stanley who, unknown to his lover, is also hiding in the resort. Francis, however, underestimates the complexity of having two jobs. He finds himself having to serve meals to both employers at the same time while keeping each one in ignorance of the other’s existence and completing their errands which strains his limited memory and forces him into complex fabrications. As if matters were not difficult enough Francis also starts a relationship with the world-weary Dolly (Polly Lister).
Richard Bean cheerfully acknowledges the origins of his script with Jordan Pearson breaking the fourth wall to chat with the audience about the role of the Harlequin in the comedy. Much of the humour in the script is slightly eccentric and off-centre. Characters are convinced Australia is populated by opera-lovers and jokes frequently build towards one punchline then veer off to another.
Director Lotte Wakeham takes inspiration from the brash seaside cartoons of Donald McGill without the saucy innuendo; Katie Scott’s costumes being bright, sharp designs. True to the early 1960’s setting a skiffle band play Grant Olding’s tunes live; and, as cast members step out of character to join in, the songs add to the gleefully anarchic sense of anything goes. Jordan Pearson struggles onstage with a massive instrument case which opens to reveal a tiny kazoo and Qasim Mahmood uses his own body as a percussion instrument.
Unlike our current Prime Minister, the claim not to know his actions are morally dodgy is credible in the case of Francis. Jordan Pearson brings a puppyish sense of wide-eyed innocence to the role; he does not even recognise a picture of The Queen. Despite his conniving there is something roguishly appealing about the character who, like Del Boy, is nowhere near as crafty as he thinks. Siobhan Athwal and Laurie Jamieson are particularly good with, respectively, a swaggering over-butch approach and a wonderfully exaggerated way of delivering some outrageous dialogue.
During the first act the comic momentum builds slowly and the relationship with the audience is tentative so not all the jokes hit home. Pearson dashes along the aisles with the house lights up trying to generate some audience involvement but does not get a nibble. As the first act ends with one of the greatest plants in theatre history and features inspired physical comedy from Javier Marzan undertaking an endless number of dead drops down a flight of stairs, the atmosphere warms considerably by the conclusion.
The mood is more relaxed in the second act with Qasim Mahmood’s over-dramatic efforts to prove his love waving around a knife bought- as is constantly mentioned – from Woolworths going down very well and Polly Lister’s speech anticipating how an age of compassion will be ushered in by a future female Prime Minister provoking knowing laughter. Lister and Pearson generate spontaneous audience responses with their tentative romance.
One Man, Two Guvnors was originally scheduled for Octagon Theatre’s reopening season in 2020 but postponed due to the covid pandemic. It is safe to say the production is well worth the wait.
Runs until 25th June, 2022