The TheatreguideLondon Review
One Man, Two Guvnors
Lyttelton Theatre Summer-Autumn 2011; Adelphi Theatre Winter 2011; Haymarket Theatre Spring-Summer 2012
(Note: The Haymarket run had a new cast.)
Messing about with a classic is dangerous, but when you pull it off, the results can be spectacular.
Richard Bean has rewritten and updated Carlo Goldoni's 1746 A Servant To Two Masters, paying it full respect but tweaking it freely, and the result is a hoot and a romp from start to finish.
Goldoni's comedy is about a wily servant who hires himself out to two bosses, only to discover that's a lot more work than he had counted on, especially since he has to keep the trick secret from them. What he doesn't know is that one of his employers is a woman disguised as a man, in search of her missing lover, who is (of course) the other boss.
Are you following this? The two bosses have to be kept from meeting, not only to protect the servant's scheme, but to keep the play from ending too soon.
Now add that the man she's disguised as is her dead brother, who was contracted to a woman, who really loves someone else – well, you get the idea. Lots of confusion, lots of mistaken identities, lots of the wrong people almost but not quite crossing paths, lots of rushing about by the servant.
Bean has set his version in Brighton in the 1960s and made everyone minor criminals – both for no particular reason than that they allow for anachronisms and topical jokes.
The woman in disguise is passing herself off as an East End hardman, the man she loves is a dimwitted public school type, the contracted bride is a Carry On airhead, and so on.
In the middle of all this is James Corden an an innocent-turned-henchman, trying to stay one step ahead of his own plots and find an occasional moment to catch his breath.
Encouraged by director Nicholas Hytner, Corden gives a high-energy and thoroughly delightful performance only barely constrained by the script (though a lot of what may look like ad libs are actually additions and elaborations developed in rehearsal and part of every performance), one that is bound to win him awards and that probably loses him a few pounds at every show.
Whether displaying his clown skills trying to lift a supposedly heavy trunk, chatting with individual audience members, stealing a bite from every plate he serves as a waiter, or somehow getting into a no-holds-barred knock-down fight with himself, Corden is rarely offstage and rarely doing anything that isn't hilarious.
And he's not alone. Jemima Roper is unforcedly comic as the girl trying to act butch, Oliver Chris droll as the cheerily brainless object of her affections. Fred Ridgeway helps anchor the play in the straightman role of the would-be bride's father, and Tom Edden shamelessly steals several scenes as a decrepit old waiter.
If this is not the funniest comedy I've ever seen – if there were actually occasional moments when I could catch my breath between bouts of laughter – it comes pretty darn close. And what more than that could you ask for?
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Review - One Man Two Guvnors - National Theatre 2011
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