Based on Carlo Goldoni’s 1746 comedy The Servant of Two Masters, The National Theatre’s production One Man, Two Guvnors, starring Gavin & Stacey's James Corden, unflinchingly puts the fun back into farce.
Adapted from the original by Richard Bean, this production (which pairs Corden with director Nicholas Hytner for the first time since The History Boys) is full-throttle fun from the outset. A live Beatle-esque quartet play lively ditties as the audience enter the auditorium, planting us, toes-a-tapping, in 1960’s Britain.
1960’s Brighton to be precise, where Francis Henshall has a new job as minder to Roscoe Crabbe... or so it seems. Roscoe is really Rachel, disguised as her own murdered brother. Rachel has fled to Brighton to meet up with her lover Stanley, who’s in hiding from the police for murdering Roscoe (yes, that’s his lover’s brother, do keep up...). Stanley too needs a minder and unwittingly employs one Francis Henshall. Ecstatic at having two meal tickets, all Francis has to do is keep his two guvnors apart. Cue the pandemonium.
Doffing its cap to the theatrical lineage of Commedia dell’Arte, modern audiences may note that the production often feels like a classy pantomime. Asides, audience participation and climactic marriage proposals are all here, even Mark Thompson’s traditional set (all perspective drawing and flats flying in) is gloriously reminiscent of your local town’s Dick Whittington, although it’s doubtful you’ve ever seen physical comedy of this calibre in the church hall.
The slapstick comedy is magnificent. With movement directed by Cal McCrystal and Kate Waters, there’s a scene involving crepe suzette, four doors and a fire extinguisher that is worth the ticket price alone. Tom Edden brings the house down as pace-maker-powered waiter Alfie, the whole scene a master-class in ensemble work and comic timing.
Given that Commedia dell’Arte was the first time that women appeared onstage, it’s a shame that the best roles in this play are all male (although there is a feminist character along with the presence of cross-dressing to keep things going). Standout performances from Oliver Chris and Daniel Rigby, neither of who waste even a syllable of their brilliantly original lines.
And what of James Corden? On the night I attended, he entered the stage to screams and whistles from his fan club in the audience, before he had even uttered a line. Far from this inducing any whisper of complacency or arrogance from the star, Corden worked tirelessly for the almost-three hour performance, his genuine talent and familiar ease with the audience proving that had he entered the stage a total unknown, he’d have still won over the entire house.
One Man, Two Guvnors is an energetic and impressive show that proves farce can be fashionable. A proper night out that proves there’s a skill to silliness.