One Man, Two Guvnors

Richard Bean, based on The Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldoni, with songs by Grant Olding
Adelphi Theatre, London

James Corden in One Man Two Guvnors

Richard Bean might be a little disappointed to learn that at the moment, selling at only just over £200 a pair on eBay, One Man, Two Guvnors tickets are only the second hottest in London.

Mind you, since his competition is coming from the sumptuous Leonardo da Vinci exhibition at the National Gallery, he may not feel too bad. After all, the old Italian's publicity machine has had a 500-year start.

Bean should still be over the moon that this glorious post-commedia dell’Arte romp, which marks his unbelievably-belated West End debut, is the talk of the town.

The reason is obvious to anyone lucky enough to get a ticket. One Man, Two Guvnors sustains its comedy almost solidly through 2¾ hours and that is no mean feat. Since its transfer from the National, the play has lost around 20 minutes and been sharpened up a little especially after the interval, where a few longueurs have been ironed out.

Bean utilises the plot of Carlo Goldoni's A Servant to Two Masters but updates it to Brighton c. 1963. The era is fixed long before the curtain goes up by a splendid skiffle band, The Craze, who play entr'acte throughout.

In front of simple flat sets, we learn of multiple duplicities in the murky criminal underworld of London and Brighton.

Charlie "The Duck" Clench, played absolutely straight by Fred Ridgeway, backs two horses when he promises the hand of his ineffably dim daughter Pauline to Alan, an actor (in the most derogatory sense of the word), after hearing that Roscoe, the thug to whom he had practically sold her to settle a debt, is dead.

The dead man reincarnates in the diminutive but surprisingly effective cross-dressing form of Jemima Rooper. She is not only future groom but also simultaneously sister-in-law, Rachel. This dichotomy injects confusion that soon pales into insignificance with the arrival of James Corden's Francis Henshall.

The Gavin and Stacey star has a whale of a time in the title role as the laziest of manservants, playing off one boss (not-Roscoe) against another, Oliver Chris excelling as upper-class twit Stanley. This leads to mayhem and slapstick that sustains seemingly for hours.

Corden, wearing a garish check suit that is the 20th Century equivalent of the traditional Harlequin costume, gives the impression that the role was written for him, excelling when he is allowed to express his own mischievous, mercurial personality in (often scripted) ad libs. Then a twinkle comes into his eye and the audience is sent into raptures.

While James Corden is a class act, he gets stern competition from Tom Edden playing 87-year-old trainee waiter Alfie. Edden is a genius of a physical comedian who must surely have been a clown in an earlier career.

The plot eventually reaches the most unlikely of commedia happy endings as every couple pairs off happily, including Francis with another of this production's great successes, Suzie Toase as the vivacious Columbine character, Dolly.

Richard Bean has written a script to die for and the cast are universally brilliant but director Nicholas Hytner must take a great deal of credit for the comic timing, which seemingly never misses and also his ability to balance the evening so that it now feels perfectly formed.

As I said after seeing it first time around, One Man, Two Guvnors is possibly the funniest play that I have ever seen. It seems that almost everyone else agrees.

Playing until 25 February

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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