One Man, Two Guvnors, Lots of Laughs [by James Wenley]
I’m not sure who laughed the most: the audience’s belly laughs competed with Owain Arthur’s gleefully mad bray as he delighted in his mischief-making as journeyman and modern day harlequin Francis Henshall, bagman to two Guvnors.
One Man, Two Guvnors is a theatrical blockbuster from The National Theatre, writer Richard Bean, and director Nicholas Hytner. The show is adapted from Goldoni’s classic 1743 A Servant of two Masters, written in the commedia dell’arte tradition, and One Man, Two Guvnors transfers that play’s plot and characters to a gaudy 1963 Brighton.
The first scene hits us hard with set-up, and it takes a while to adjust to the heightened performance style and tune into the accents. It’s the engagement party of ditzy Pauline Clench (Kellie Shirley) and wannabe thespian Alan Dangle (Leon Williams). To the confusion of some of the guests, the invitations announced it was to be the engagement party of Pauline and one Roscoe Crabbe. Roscoe, we learn, is dead. Problem is, Francis Henshall crashes the do to announce that his employer is still very much alive, and in Roscoe walks (or rather, his ‘identical’ twin sister Rachel played by Rosie Watt), on the run from the law and disguised as her deceased brother). There are other characters to meet in this scene too – Pauline’s Father Charlie “the duck” Clench (Colin Mace), accounts lady and semi-hearted feminist Dolly (Amy Booth-Steel), Alan’s slippery lawyer father Harry (Nick Cavaliere), and Lloyd Boateng (Mark Monero), who picked up all life experiences of note from prison. With the tricky narrative business of scene one done the play’s farce is ready to unravel. Francis picks up his second guvnor, Stanley Stubbers (Edward Bennett), after loitering outside The Cricketers’ Arm, a pub that also serves food. Happily Stubbers is intricately locked with the Roscoe conspiracy, and Francis finds himself in the middle of it all, trying to balance the demands of his two employers without them finding out about the other.
Show band The Craze (two guitars, bass, and Billy Stookes on his mother’s washboard) entertain us pre-show with some feet tapping 60s standards created for the show, and the band return throughout the show, sometimes joined for a sing-a-long by the actors, to play during scene transitions. This creates something of a party atmosphere and keeps the pace driving, but also has the effect of considering each scene as something of its own comic set-piece. Ie: Francis needs to get a heavy trunk into a hotel, Francis needs to deliver the right letter to the right boss, Francis needs to do the ironing for both of his bosses etc. Perhaps the biggest set-piece closes Act One when Francis has to serve dinner to both Stubbers and Rachel as Rosco in rooms opposite to one another. Not only do the two guvnors keep appearing unexpectedly out of doors, Francis must contend with the pub staff including an old waiter with shaky hands and a habit of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, as well as Francis’ own hunger pains. Ingredients in place, the unfolding scene is belly-achingly brilliant mayhem.
Humour is broad and throws everything at us to cater to a wide taste including clowning, pratfalls, crude language, sex and there-but-for-the-grace-of-seating-allocations audience participation. The structure meanwhile is sharp and tight, plotted for maximum escalation. Not everything however is set: as in commedia, Owain Arthur’s Francis, very much the audience’s man, is given free rein to riff and improv within the structure. The show cheerfully breaks the fourth wall rules, Arthur enjoying playing with audience members so much that he often corpses, breaking into his mad laugh, and encourages the other actors to join him. One particular audience moment is a gift that keeps on giving. There does however seem to be a calculation to Arthur’s apparent spontaneity, and the show walks a very fine tightrope between teasing, and fooling its audience. When the comedy is generated from something that is not as it seems there is potential to leave a bad taste.
One Man, Two Guvnors comes to the Auckland Arts Festival with the international seal of approval, and a hype machine of the ‘funniest show on the planet’ sort. While it cannot live up to these impossible expectations, what it is a good farce done very well indeed. It’s a show that knows what works, and sticks to it. It does not re-invent the wheel, but instead reminds us of what can make commedia and farce so satisfying, and re-energises the form.
One Man, Two Guvnors is presented by The National Theatre and plays as part of the Auckland Arts Festival until 23rd March. Details see Auckland Arts Festival.