The National Theatre's One Man, Two Guvnors on YouTube is a triumphant reminder of why theatre matters – and one million people agree
The show had its digital premiere on the National last night
It was inspired of the National Theatre to begin their weekly YouTube streaming of great productions from their repertoire with the deliriously silly One Man, Two Guvnors, starring James Corden as a very harassed servant. What's needed at a time of national crisis, when everyone is almost crippled with anxiety, is the opportunity to laugh.
Suddenly, the popularity of Restoration Comedy after a time of war, uncertainty and plague made perfect sense. The foibles of humanity are its greatest release.
A staggering near-million people and counting clearly agree with me. That's how many have already seen the National's stream – with a peak audience of 209,000. Those are audience figures for theatre people to dream about. In the Lyttelton Theatre, and then on tour, on transfer to the West End and finally on Broadway, Corden played to 504,417.
My personal favourite line is "A man will do anything to get you into bed; lie, cheat, buy a bed."
I was lucky enough to be revisiting the production. I saw it with my family when it opened at the National in 2011 and it counts as one of my happiest memories of theatre-going. I shall always remember watching my younger son, who was then about 11, collapsing with helpless laughter on the floor in front of his seat at the endlessly inventive restaurant scene, with its doddery waiter (the tireless Tom Edden) repeatedly falling down the stairs.
I've always loved a farce (as a young person I had an embarrassing fondness – at least to my Methodist parents – for those shows where vicars ended up without trousers) but they can often misfire. This adaption by Richard Bean of Goldoni's 17th-century original is a peach, snappy and full of wonderfully witty and silly lines. My personal favourite is "A man will do anything to get you into bed; lie, cheat, buy a bed." Although the imperishable "They don't trust me with cheese" runs it pretty close.
It wraps the audience in its embrace
But Nicholas Hytner's entire production is a gem. It centres around a performance of incredible assurance and warmth by Corden, one that reveals exactly why he went on to become such a megastar. With the assistance of the brilliant associate director Cal McCrystal of Spymonkey fame, he times each gag, each pratfall, to perfection. He has that quality, which all great clowns possess, of being dainty at the same time as flinging himself around the stage. There are moments when his delivery is reminiscent of the late, great Les Dawson, with the same delicacy of touch and instinctive understanding of when the laugh will fall.
But everything around him is equally good: Oliver Chris is so funny that he regularly makes Corden corpse. Or perhaps that's deliberate. You never absolutely know with corpsing. Or indeed with a lot of the highlights of this production. But whatever it is, it is good-hearted; it wraps the audience in its embrace.
I thought that this might vanish on TV, that the performances (all excellent) and the carefully calibrated mayhem might just seem too big and too stupid, especially at a time when it is hard to laugh. But the opposite happened: the sheer pleasure of the interaction between the people watching and the people on stage came over strongly, the magic of community was preserved. This matters because One Man, Two Guvnors is not an instantly likeable play; it is the production and the actors' ability to create that bond with the audience that makes it so.
Above all, the National Theatre's first At Home was a triumphant reminder of why theatre matters; it brings people together to experience something that lifts them out of and above their lives. Sometimes it makes you think (I'm going to give Schaubühne's legendary Richard III a go tonight), sometimes it provokes. Sometimes it irritates. Sometimes it simply makes you laugh. But always it is a gesture of vitality, a light in the dark. It's wonderful that while the theatres themselves are closed, streaming can remind of us that.