One Man, Two Guvnors

Whenever a sold-out play is garlanded with the sort of critical superlatives that lead to lengthy queues forming at the box office come returns time, there’s always the worry that it’s going to be a case of hype over delivery. In the case of Nicholas Hytner’s new staging of Richard Bean’s loose adaption of Goldoni’s One Servant, Two Masters, there is no such cause for concern. This blissfully, at times hysterically, funny evening at the theatre rehabilitates James Corden from the obnoxious self-parody that he seemed mired in, offers a clutch of some of the best supporting performances anywhere on stage in ages, and shows (after the similarly giddy London Assurance) that the Hytner/Bean team-up produces some of the best comedy to be had anywhere on the London stage.

Bean relocates Goldoni’s original to 1963 Brighton, which leads to on-stage skiffle, an amusing evocation of the criminal underworlds of there and London, and a similarly convoluted plot. It boils down to Francis (Corden), a cheerful, limited and permanently hungry sort who finds himself working simultaneously for two employers, a young woman disguised as her dead twin brother and a public-school Hooray Henry who killed her brother but is also madly in love with the aforementioned young woman. Throw in an aspiring actor called Alan (because his first name, Orlando, was already taken by another Equity member), an 87 year old waiter, a Latin-spouting solicitor and a proto-feminist who eagerly awaits the first female PM ‘because she’ll be gentle, and kind, and humane’, and the scene is set for an evening’s hilarity.

What’s so endearing about this is the warmth and looseness to proceedings. There is a great deal of ad-libbing and improv, mostly from Corden, who shows after all that he’s a natural comedian. A typical example went something like this the night I went:

CORDEN: I’m so starving, I could eat any sort of sandwich. Meat, fish, even a nice bit of cheese…

AUDIENCE MEMBER: I’ve got a sandwich. You’re perfectly welcome to it.

CORDEN: Well, that had to happen one night. (Pauses for laughter). What flavour is it?

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hummus.

CORDEN: (Disbelievingly) Hummus?!

Followed by merry gales of generous hilarity. It’s not all entirely like this – the great scene at the end of Act 1, in which Francis serves two meals simultaneously to both his guvnors, aided and abetted by the ancient waiter, ends on a note that’s both brilliantly unexpected and apparently rather cruel – but what strikes one most about this show is the openness of spirit that it displays. Oliver Chris’ near-genius Stanley Stubbers, the Wodehousian silly-ass who lusts after his disguised lover, gets most of the wittiest and funniest lines, at times coming on like an updated cousin of Hugh Laurie’s George in Blackadder. But there isn’t a weak link in the entire cast, even down to Lloyd Boateng as an ex-con chef who thinks back, wistfully, to his glory days at Parkhurst nick.

It’s very much sold out, although a West End transfer is planned for the autumn. (Heaven knows whether this will involve the likes of Corden and Chris.) There’s an NT live screening in September, but I don’t think that seeing this via a cinema screen will convey the full burlesque hilarity. Instead, I recommend queuing for returns and hoping that your luck’s in. The evening is more than worth it.

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