One Man, Two Guvnors, written by Richard Bean; songs by Grant Olding; based on The Servant of Two Masters, by Carlo Goldoni; directed by Nicholas Hytner; produced by National Theatre (part of National Theatre Live): seen June 21, 2016, originally broadcast September 15, 2011.
Confession time: I did not do my due diligence of a reviewer before going into this production. I knew it a comedy (with some music) starring James Corden (who I knew best from Doctor Who) and produced by the National Theatre, and that was enough for me to want to catch it. I, alas, had missed out on it the first time around, and so having it be a part of the NT Live encores was a lucky break for me.
I sat down, and the show started – and I immediately was confused. Why were we getting this music group? And the opening scene seemed remarkably bad for such a professional production. Over the top acting, asides that were beyond obvious, and a plot that seemed ludicrous even by Shakespearean terms. It was just funny enough to not be funny. I was … concerned, to say the least.
Then we have the next scene: Corden, having briefly been in the prior scene as the ‘man’ of one of the two ‘guvnors’ of the title, states his woes to the audience, and it suddenly became hilarious.
You see, the thing I didn’t realize was that One Man, Two Guvnors was based on commedia dell’arte. For those of you who don’t know, commedia dell’arte is a style of theatre that was developed in Italy in the 16th century that developed character types and tropes that are still being used today.
But as a result, the format has the same issues as anything that has so permeated culture: just like stories of people not finding Seinfeld or Monty Python funny because so many things later modeled itself after it, commedia dell’arte is sometimes trapped in the somewhat rigid rules and tropes that define it. In other words, that first scene. (And the use of music during scene changes, for that matter.)
There are many a media that I’ve explained the premise and said, “just go with it.” Community, most of Shakespeare’s comedies, and even – in a way – Sweeney Todd (it’s a musical about a serial killer who’s girlfriend bakes the victims into pies – JUST GO WITH IT). Once I realized what I was watching and just went with it, I found the production highly amusing.
The basic plot, not that it really matters: it’s the 1960s, and Francis Henshall (Corden) is employed by gangster Roscoe Crabbe (Jemima Rooper) – and yes, you read that name right, as it turns out it’s really Rachel Crabbe, Roscoe’s twin sister, as Roscoe was killed. “Roscoe” is in Brighton to collect money from the father of a fiance from an arranged marriage. Henshall goes to the pub to try and get some food on no money, and runs into Stanley Stubbers (Oliver Chris), who not only is Rachel’s beloved, but the one who had killed Roscoe. Stubbers hires Henshall to help him out, and – in no surprise, considering the title – Henshall then has two ‘guvnors’.
There’s another plot where “Roscoe’s” fiance Pauline (Claire Lams) is actually in love with Alan Dangle, who fancies himself an actor (and hilariously overplayed by Daniel Rigby), and of course Henshall has his own girl to get, Dolly (Suzie Toase, who’s … um … assets are clearly defined in a very tight sweater). Henshall spends a good chunk of the rest of the play trying to keep straight the various assignments from the two ‘guvnors’, all the while trying to keep them separate. Simple, right?
There’s plenty of pratfalls and broad humor, as befitting a play based on commedia dell’arte, and an honest to God slapstick is used at one point. The two improv sections were well managed by Corden, with his almost losing it when someone in the audience actually did have a sandwich part of the fun of the scene. Corden is brilliant once he gets going, and the rest of the cast does a great job of holding their own against him. (A special shout out to Tom Edden, who plays Alfie, a supposedly aging waiter on his first night of employment.)
Finally, here’s where I rave about the tech crew: at the interval, I wanted to find the stage manager and backstage crew and give them a high five (and then a sympathetic hug). The amount of work that must have gone on every night to keep this show running as tight as it was clear to see for someone who’s done tech before. This show is one of those that lives on how well the running crew works, from scene changes to on stage food to having a setup for an off stage fall, and the fact that it went off without a hitch means the entire tech crew gets a virtual standing ovation from me.
The production still has some screenings left, and I highly recommend it if you’re looking for just a goofy time where you can just sit back and laugh. For more information, including a list of dates and locations of when it is screening, can be found at National Theatre Live’s website, and for more information about the NT Live Encore Series, visit Fathom Events.