One Man, Two Guvnors, National Theatre | Theatre reviews, news & interviews
One Man, Two Guvnors, National Theatre
James Corden and Oliver Chris in what may well turn out to be a comedy classic
Dropped trousers, audience participation and an onstage skiffle band fronted by a singer/songwriter boasting specs by way of Buddy Holly: what has become of the National Theatre's Lyttelton auditorium? Well, let's just say that for the entire first act of One Man, Two Guvnors, it's got to be easily the giddiest theatrical address in town. And when the momentum flags, as it does somewhat after the interval, not to worry. By that point, Richard Bean's Goldoni rewrite has generated enough goodwill that you all but float home.
That is, if you even feel like leaving, given a show so full of high spirits that one is tempted to linger if only to bask in the abidingly larky atmosphere. I've long read about people laughing until they cried but don't recall ever experiencing that phenomenon first-hand prior to last night, though whether James Corden, Oliver Chris or a sensationally scene-stealing newcomer called Tom Edden are most responsible is for now a moot point. Virtually everyone in Nicholas Hytner's fizzy ensemble can at some point or other be held gleefully to account for probably the funniest show in my experience since Noises Off.
Hytner scored a sizeable success last year with his modern-dress, surveillance-state Hamlet so must have enjoyed switching gears with a knockabout evening that includes, among various comic ruses, a preening actor by the name of Alan Dangle (this week's Bafta-winner Daniel Rigby) who likes to blow his own Shakespearean horn. Classical antecedents and references abound, and yet Bean's play emerges as its own admirably bonkers beast. That, in itself, may be no bad thing in light of a track record with Goldoni at this address that includes two notorious duds, Il Campiello (1976) and Countrymania (1987). Theatrical misfortune, I'm happy to report, has not struck thrice.
For many, the attraction this go-round will surely have less to do with commedia dell'arte displaced to gangland Brighton c. 1963 than the return of small-screen rude boy Corden to the same venue where he came to attention as Timms in The History Boys almost exactly seven years ago. Playing the eponymous man with two guvnors - in Goldoni's wording, the servant of two masters - Corden careers about pulling up spectators from the front row, ironing shirts and smoking and farting on cue, all that when not taking responsibility for The Beatles (yes, really) or doing battle with a cumbersome trunk. And as for the soup tureen? See for yourself.
A Harlequin figure of notable heft, Corden's Francis Henshall finds himself paying dual obeisance to two bosses who are, in fact, actual lovers. The snootier of the two, Stanley Stubbers, turns out to be a hilariously hirsute toff played by Season's Greetings alum Chris with equal measure superiority and incredulity. "I, too, enjoy pain," he announces sidelong to the house, Chris mining every arched eyebrow and preposterous display of vaingloriousness for maximum effect. The performance, to co-opt Stanley's preferred lingo, is "yummy", not least the way in which the hitherto innocuous phrase "country life" becomes a veritable expletive.
Francis's second "guvnor" would seem to be a recently murdered baddie risen up from the dead, when in fact it's the deceased man's fully alive twin sister, Rachel (Jemima Rooper), who happens to be Stanley's lover en travesti. The unfolding shenanigans matter less than an overriding arc that arrives at variations on the multiple couplings previously effected this year by Bean in his Royal Court hit, The Heretic. "There's no harm done," we're told accurately near the end, which is surely Bean's way of saying all's well that ends well - and that a landscape rife with deception, doddering waiters and the alliterative possibilities of the letter D can also be plainly, simply buoyant. How else to take on board composer Grant Olding's musical interludes, a sort of in-house hootenanny that brightens proceedings before the Brighton narrative proper even begins?
An equal-opportunity offender, Bean lets a devil-may-care xenophobia lasso the Swiss, Norwegians, and Japanese, not to mention an Australian penchant for opera that comes as news to me. (Will a Canada punchline be tweaked if this show travels westward?) As proof that he can also hit closer to home, the playwright delivers an early sight gag involving the Queen and a later verbal mock-paean in the direction of Mrs Thatcher. That last encomium falls to the fabulous Suzie Toase, playing an amply bosomed book-keeper by the name of (what else?) Dolly. Toase's walk - more of a wiggle, really - is as period-perfect as the deliberately hazy, picture-postcard sets from Mark Thompson, encased within a two-dimensional gold frame: a visually soothing rendering of a seafront that narrowly averts a double suicide.
If the high jinks post-interval start to pall, that's due partly to the difficulty inherent in sustaining what in some cases stretches a single joke well past breaking point. (Rigby's self-professed "dangerous actor" suffers in that regard, notwithstanding the unexpected musical usage to which his hairless chest is put.) And it's also because the plot no longer needs the wondrously funny 87-year-old waiter, Alfie, played by a discovery, Tom Edden (pictured above in full, hollow-eyed distress), who I'm told is a good half-century or more younger than the ghoulish, sunken-cheeked shambles on mostly precarious view. It's heartening to learn that this fresh face isn't actually at death's door if only so that Edden can stick with One Man, Two Guvnors for what by rights should be years to come. There's life aplenty in this show yet.
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