Sunday, May 29, 2011

Theatre Review : One Man Two Guvnors by Richard Bean - Lyttleton Theatre (dir Nicholas Hytner 23/5/11)

For me, the acme of theatrical comedy is Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, a structural masterpiece which takes a mundane farce, turns it inside out and builds into a magnificent finalĂ© which cannot be beaten. All other modern comedies are measured against this, and usually fall short by a long way. One Man, Two Guvnors at the National Theatre, however, came very close.

The play is a reworking by Richard Bean of Carlo Goldoni’s “A Servant of Two Masters”, itself a very funny late commedia dell’arte piece – but don’t let that put you off. One Man Two Guvnors simply uses Goldoni’s basic plot – a cheeky chappie with an insatiable appetite gets hired first by one master, then another and has to keep them both going without each other’s knowledge so he can be paid twice. Needless to say, confusion ensues.

One Man Two Guvnors transposes the action from Venice to Brighton, with Francis Henshall (James Corden) in the employ of gangsters Rachel Crabbe (Jemima Roper), disguised as her twin brother, who was due to marry Charlie "The Duck" Clench (Fred Ridgeway)’s dim daughter Pauline (Claire Lams) (though she loves actor Alan Dangle (Daniel Rigby)) - and Stanley Stubbers (Oliver Chris), who has killed Rachel's brother and is in love with Rachel. The plot is taken directly from A Servant of Two Masters, it's complicated and completely irrelevant.

The action revolves round a series of activities that Henshall is asked to do first by one guvnor and then the other. This reaches a crescendo as he tries to serve the same meal to each of his bosses in separate private rooms in a restaurant, with help from a very shaky 87-year old waiter (Tom Edden) and an audience member, whilst satisfying his own insatiable appetite. The result – without giving too much away – is one of the funniest set pieces I have seen for a long time, a masterpiece of timing, slapstick humour and surreality as Henshall gets pulled between one room and the other.

The second half isn't as good as the first, but its still very funny. As in all good farces, the lovers end up with their trousers round their ankles - as in all good Commedia del'Arte, the loose ends all get tied up in the end. There is a bit of self-referentiality when James Corden muses on how his Harlequinesque character traditionally uses the satisfaction of his baser urges to drive the action forward, but this is not aimed at theatrical historians, instead it's just an excuse for lining up another set of gags.

What the line does highlight is that this is not just comedy gold, but actually very clever theatre. Goldoni's original play is never overt, but in fact the plot sticks to its outlines very closely and maintains traditions of Commedia del'Arte - character stereotypes, the breaking down of the fourth wall, the asides to the audience and improvisations (some intentional, some not). The Brighton pub is The Cricketers Arms, from Brighton Rock.

The performances are without exception sensational. I loved James Corden in The History Boys, despaired at some of his subsequent career choices but he is charming, charasmatic and very funny in the lead role. Oliver Chris as the posh gangster Stanley has all the best lines, delivered to perfection, and Daniel Rigby overacts superbly. The skiffle music by Grant Olding and The Craze, ably supported by members of the cast (Daniel Rigby topping everything) is excellent, but the show is stolen by Tom Edden as Alfie the elderly waiter.

This may not be to everyone's taste. If you don't enjoy slapstick, farce or general silliness then it may not be for you. But I don't think that spare tickets for this superb production will be on sale for long. I laughed so much my sides hurt, the man next to me even more so. I hear that addional tickets are coming on sale soon, so I urge you to book up immediately for one of the most enjoyable evenings I have spent at a theatre for quite a while.

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