One Man Two Guvnors
by Richard Bean
Based on The Servant With Two Masters by Carlo Goldoni
National Theatre Production
1st February 2012
How do you say anything about it? It’s been heavily reviewed, universally acclaimed. It lives up to every superlative syllable.
Dolly (Suzy Toase) and Francis Henshall (James Corden)
One Man, Two Guvnors is a modern version of Goldoni’s The Servant With Two Masters, which was written in 1743. The original version assumed chunks of improvisation, but the script that survives is the 1753 version which set it in concrete. This is a highly successful modernisation, or rather recreation of the original plot, transferred to Brighton in 1963, right at the start of Merseybeat, hence the 60s style beat group opening and closing the acts, and covering scene changes.
It’s exactly my sort of thing. There’s a direct line from Goldoni to French farce to Whitehall farce. I think of the great farceurs. Brian Rix’s Whitehall farces were the bank holiday entertainment in the Britain of my youth, filmed live in the theatre from the balcony. Boxing Day, Easter Monday, Whit Monday, August Bank Holiday … unmissable. Brian Rix produced five farces a year, staged at the Whitehall Theatre for one TV performance. He started with Love in a Mist in 1956, and shut down with What The Doctor Ordered on Whit Monday 1972. Eighty farces, contracted for five productions a year. Rix said I found it increasingly difficult to find farces and comedies of a consistently high quality, so like all good things, Brian Rix Presents came to an end. It didn’t end there completely. Through the eighties and into the nineties. Bournemouth Pier Theatre ran some of the Rix style classics in its summer season. They seemed to star Su Pollard from Hi-De-Hi pretty often, who was ideal for this kind of production (and she can sing up a storm if asked, which was useful). We’re forty years on, and the West End has two perfect successors running at the same time: One Man Two Guv’nors and The Ladykillers.
James Corden is the Harlequin figure (Truffaldino in the original). I watched with 100% attention. Brian Rix was different, more the hapless victim in his Whitehall farces. The obvious references are Phil Silvers in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum or Frankie Howard as the slave Lurcio in the derivative Up Pompeii. Corden is a true Harlequin. Whereas the ones quoted looked as if they were working their socks off, Corden (though he was indeed working his socks off) looked totally relaxed and in command. It was a more controlled and subtle performance.
He could step outside the play and back in again seamlessly, and comment on the play and the theatricality. He could reveal the cogs at work, then slip back into character. That’s a tremendous skill, most never learn to do it, and it’s one he performed with consummate ease. When was he improvising, and when was he on the script? It was impossible to guess much of the time (though I did way better at guessing than the kind and sympathetic people behind me, no plot spoilers). In my days doing limelights as a student, I watched Tommy Cooper twice-nightly for ten weeks, Ken Dodd twice-nightly for six, Roy Castle for weeks on end too. Corden is not only in that class, but at the top of it. He’s a great comedian, but also a great actor. His role as Clem Cattini in Telstar was superb, let alone The History Boys or Gavin and Stacey.
L to R: Dolly (Suzie Toase), Francis (James Corden), Pauline (Claire Lams), Stanley (Oliver Chris), Rachel (Jemima Rooper), Alan Dangle (Daniel Rigby), Lloyd (Trevor Laird), Charlie Clench (Fred Ridgeway)
The Goldoni tradition relies on stock characters, and few realize how hard these are to play. Every single performer in this got it right. This comes back to the scripted / improvising issue. Classic Italian Commedia dell’arte (my spellchecker prefers comedy del rate) allowed improvisation around set lines and actions, as does pantomime. The pantomime dame has the solo role which the harlequin character used to have. In Cinderella, Buttons is a straight harlequin character, allowed improvised lines / stand-up comedy. The interaction with other characters has space too, though the amount of physical comedy and funny lines means precision rehearsal.
Alfie (Tom Edden)
Tom Edden as Alfie, the comic elderly shaky-handed waiter, was brilliant. It’s a classic routine. The Whitehall farce reference is clear … they always had the guy who was playing the drunken servant / doctor who got knocked about and bashed around by everyone (and every door and cupboard that opened). I never saw it live, but they can’t have done it better. Claire Lams as Pauline, and Suzie Toase as Dolly are hilarious.
The Craze are the four piece band who start and finish each act, but the added joy is watching each of the principals do a set piece ‘turn’ with the band. James Corden does xylophone, Oliver Chris as Stanley Stubbers, the public school boy, does cycle horns, Daniel Rigby as Alan / Orlando, the would be actor, plays drums on his chest (Hey, Mick Fleetwood does this with Fleetwood Mac, but not as amusingly). The three girls come on and do the Beverly Sisters / Avons girl trio act. Trevor Laird as Lloyd does steel drum.
Sets great, music great, performances great. They’re taking it to America. It should be a huge success, but they’ll need to do something with Lloyd and Charley’s references to their time in Parkhurst. Maybe Dartmoor would work instead, but I think they’ll need an explanatory line, which is easy as Pauline (‘I don’t understand!) is the built in device allowing for lines to be explained.
The theatre was the Adelphi … one criticism is that it’s large, but has almost no rake, so that sight lines are poor. Worse was having a six foot three chap in front of us. We were right behind exactly this guy a year or two ago. I’m sure it was the same man. He even had the same blue pullover. He dons LARGE headphones that make his head four inches wider, then presses his hands on the outside to add at least another three inches width. Oh, for a theatre with a decent rake.