The Experience: NT’s One Man Two Guvnors
Just in the nick of time, when so many of us are losing our sanity wondering how to fill the days with our work possibly evaporating and the outside air feeling as scary as a stroll through a bee farm, the National Theatre of London has our back. They are unleashing one of the things we all need in this time of self-imprisonment (or should I say, self-isolation…sorta feels like the same thing, to be honest) by pulling out this comedic treasure for their inaugural YouTube broadcast: Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors, a play by the very talented Richard Bean, based on Servant of Two Masters (Italian: Il servitore di due padroni), a 1743 Commedia dell’arte comedy by the Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni. This National Theatre production made a star out of its leading man, James Corden, taking home a Tony Award once it transferred to Broadway in 2012. “Being in One Man, Two Guvnors is what I consider to be the high point of my career,” Cordon beautifully tells us in an Attitude Magazine interview. “I can almost chart my professional life as anything that happened before One Man, Two Guvnors and anything that happened after. Any of the things that happened in my life subsequently are only due to my being in that play.” That game-changing play opened at the National Theatre in 2011, toured the UK to great success thereafter, and then opened in the West End in November 2011, with a subsequent Broadway run beginning April the year after.
One Man, Two Guvnors beautifully resets the Italian period table setting down in 1963 Brighton where an out-of-work and desperate skiffle player by the name of Francis Henshall finds himself comically over-employed by two very different and demanding men. It’s a simple straight-forward comic set up but etched within playwright Richard Bean’s brilliantly crafted play, there is a silly sense of chaos that comes scurrying across the table at almost every turn, sometimes even up from the audience rows of the theatre. “Hummus” anyone?
As directed with a special gift for hilarity by Nicholas Hytner, James Corden and crew shine as brightly as some well-polished cutlery, with Corden serving up comic courses as the easily confused and very hungry Francis Henshall. He’s center stage for this riotous farce that combines majestically the original’s iconic structure with a very British verbal and physical sense of humor layered in and on top. The result is a perfect fourth-wall demolishing explosion of ridiculousness and slapstick silliness, dished out by experts in the field, all for our at-home quarantined amusement. We couldn’t have asked for anything better, whether we knew we wanted that dish or not.
Francis Henshall sits desperate outside a pub that excitedly serves food. He dreams of something to wet his whistle and fill his forever empty stomach when, out of the blue, he falls almost headfirst into the difficult situation of being separately employed by two very different men, each with their own heavy trunk filled with secrets. One calls himself, Roscoe Crabbe, played wonderfully by very game Jemima Rooper. ‘He’s’ a gangster with a twin sister and a shared secret, while the other is an upper-class handsome fool by the name of Stanley Stubbers, lovingly played by Oliver Chris. He also has a secret that, honestly, doesn’t seem to be sitting so heavy on his jovial heart, for he is in love, and love is everything to this silly snob. Francis tries with all his might to keep the two from ever meeting, but in order for each of his “guvnors” to never find out about the other, he’s got to be very careful what he says here and there, as a wise and cunning mind is required at almost every turn. Unfortunately, Francis Henshall has neither and is forever finding ways to make matters worse and more complicated. Making matters even more convoluted, tough guy Roscoe isn’t really what he says he is, as he is really his twin (not identical, obviously) sister, Rachel in disguise. You see, Rachel, after learning that her twin brother Roscoe has been killed by her boyfriend, who, as it must turn out, is the ridiculously snooty (and handsome) gentleman, Stanley Stubbers, a scheme is hatched to get the two of them to Australia, even though they both don’t really like opera. Trust me, that’s a thing. Naturally, in order to complicate things even further, the local mobster Charlie the Duck, a very good Fred Ridgeway, has previously arranged for his daughter, the very sweet but dim Pauline. played smartly by Claire Lams, to marry Roscoe to settle a debt, despite her undying love for the over-the-top amateur actor Alan Dangle, played to silly perfection by Daniel Rigby. Throw in a handful of easily digestible letters, a very heavy trunk, several unlucky audience members, an extremely old waiter right out of a Mel Brooks film, and Francis’ complicated love for Charlie’s dynamite bookkeeper, Dolly, deliciously portrayed by the very funny Suzie Toase, that is easily matched by his other true love, food and drink, and what we have is a very full and tasty meal indeed, with or without the requested sandwich. When asked whether he prefers eating or making love to a beautiful woman, Corden delivers a master class of concentrated internal confusion and insight into the man, replying simply and perfectly, “Tough one that, innit.”
In the play’s most infamous scene, Francis is ordered to serve a multi-course dinner to each of his ‘guvnors’ at the same time in dining rooms across the central hall from one another, upstairs at the neighborhood pub. With associate director Cal McCrystal guiding the physical frivolity with every ounce of comedy served up cold and delicious, the combination of visual and verbal comedy deviously shines out strong and bright. Adding the octogenarian waiter, magnificently embodied by the brilliant Tom Edden, into the soup is a delightful ingenious move, serving up the dish with a pair of quivering hands and an elbow to our gut that doesn’t stop digging. Edden, who has this amazing ability to fall backward down a flight of stairs, rises up again and again and delivers the scene with aplomb mischievously blank and brilliant with every door slam. Alongside Corden and the rest of this talented crew of comedians, One Man, Two Guvnors mines for gold in a peculiarly funny English kinda way, combining genius physicality with seriously funny obstacles and plot twists, while giving us even more jewels to be devoured along the way, particularly when incorporating the front row audience members to satisfy our hungry appetite for laughs.
With Corden holding court like the supreme lovable jester, the rest of the cast flourishes in his self-created mess. Oliver Chris as Stanley and Daniel Rigby as a would-be actor/suitor are both as brilliant as can be, squeezing every possible laugh out of the solidly written but ridiculous material. Jemima Rooper as the disguised and hidden Rachel delivers a brother worthy of our trembling fear while giving us so much more to be dazzled by, and Suzi Toase serves up a strong smart dame worthy of our adoration as great as Francis has for her. The play is also gifted with some fascinatingly wonderful interruptions throughout the night with songs written and performed by a “skiffle” styled band stylishly led by composer Grant Olding called “The Craze”. Consisting of lead vocalist, Olding (guitar, keys, accordion, harmonica), Philip James (guitar, banjo, backing vocals), Richard Coughlan (double bass, electric bass, backing vocals) and Ben Brooker (percussion including washboard and spoons, drums, backing vocals), the band adds to the framework of vaudevillian pub-hall delight. Combined, they all make this adapted play a perfectly crafted delight, served up strong and hilarious by the National Theatre. The endless courses of verbal gags and pratfalls in One Man, Two Guvnors delight giving us some glorious at-home laughs that are ever so welcome during these desperate times and the difficult days ahead.
Fortunately, for the sake of our sanity, the National Theatre’s YouTube channel gives us a chance to screen one of their productions every Thursday at 7 PM GMT/2 PM EST, which will remain available for viewing seven days after. “Our ambition at the National Theatre is to create work which is challenging, entertaining and inspiring and we’re committed to continuing that through these difficult times,” as beautifully stated by Executive Director and Joint Chief Executive, Lisa Burger. “I’m thrilled that we’re able to fulfill this ambition in a different way through our collaboration with YouTube. I am exceptionally proud of the team at the National Theatre for working so hard to create National Theatre at Home and also to the rights holders who have been so supportive of this new initiative allowing us to bring theatre to households right across the world…. We will be streaming each production at the same time each week in order to recreate, where possible, the communal viewing experience and we hope this will be an opportunity for people to share their enjoyment together online.” Additionally, the series will include Q&As with cast and creative teams, post-screening talkbacks, and more. After One Man, Two Guvnors, Sally Cookson’s adaptation of Jane Eyre hits the digital stage April 9th; Bryony Lavery’s adaptation of Treasure Island on April 16th, and Tamsin Greig in Twelfth Night on April 23rd. Additional titles will be announced at a later date. Bravo, and thank you, National Theatre. You are saving us all feeding these delicious dishes for us all to devour weekly.