Sign up for our weekly newsletter

One Man, Two Guvnors

Richard Bean, based on The Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldoni, with songs by Grant Olding
RNT Lyttelton Theatre
(2011)

The National Theatre can rarely, if ever, have had a production that generated more laughs than this joyous updating of Carlo Goldoni's (post-)Commedia dell'Arte 1745 classic, The Servant of Two Masters.

Richard Bean has moved the stock characters on to Brighton in 1963 but they are all there, albeit in new guise. Like the original, the lynchpin is neither the master of the house nor any of the troubled lovers but the servant himself.

James Corden makes a triumphant return to the venue that launched a career which now embraces acting and writing for film and TV.

Once again under the inspired direction of Nicholas Hytner, as he was in The History Boys, Corden plays the lazy, gluttonous Francis Henshall. He is the man who gets two guvnors though technically that ignores a touch of gender inaccuracy.

Following the introductory warm up from a skiffle band that returns throughout the 2¾ hours, we enter the home of a far from bright petty criminal Charlie "the Duck" Clench, played by deadpan master and Bean regular Fred Ridgeway.

There, the family is celebrating the engagement of their even dimmer daughter, Claire Lams as Pauline, to Daniel Rigby's Alan, a would-be actor with all the talent of Tommy Cooper on a bad day.

The slight problem is that Clench has already promised the lady to a serious gangster, though the latter's demise is an apparent impediment to a happy marriage.

Soon enough the dead man's minder Francis appears. Life becomes more complicated following an apparent resurrection, which is soon enough explained, at least to those on the far side of the fourth wall.

By the time that the assorted characters decamp to a lovingly created Cricketer's Arms public house, there are streams of lovers, crooks, domestics and members of the audience on stage for a slapstick bonanza.

As in traditional Commedia, the rest of the plot is only a convenient hook on which to hang the characters and the gags.

Corden's character has somehow managed to get twin jobs serving masters on the run from the law and in his efforts to avoid effort, continually causes mayhem. That perfectly suits an actor who loves ad-libbing and throwing himself around with abandon.

Slightly surprisingly, he doesn't overwhelm the remaining cast members. Jemima Rooper cross-dresses remarkably well for someone who can only be around 5 feet tall, conveying menace in the gruffest of tones.

Oliver Chris makes Stanley, a murderer/lover, into a fine, upper class buffoon whose throw-away exclamations are rarely short of hilarious.

The best support though comes from two actors playing archetypal members of the lower classes.

As Dolly, Suzie Toase oozes naughtiness and sexual adventure in the best Carry On fashion, interacting with the audience through a stream of knowing asides.

By contrast, it is hard to imagine that anyone could give a better display of slapstick clowning than Tom Edden portraying Alfie, an 87-year-old trainee waiter with incorrigible shakes.

Being the National, a large cast is on show, complemented by the band. They play Grant Olding's lively music to set the period, as does Mark Thompson's design, which uses flats showing what look like 3D cartoon images thanks to clever use of perspective

One Man, Two Guvnors might not be high art (though the writing and staging are very intelligent) but it will undoubtedly be the funniest play this year and maybe for several more to come, with long periods during which the laughter is continuous. That is a testament to the skills of Richard Bean, who had a spell as a stand-up comedian and puts that experience to good use.

He is ably assisted by Nicholas Hytner and physical comedy specialist Cal McCrystal plus the whole cast, who between them time every joke whether verbal or physical to perfection.

As such, One Man, Two Guvnors should fill the Lyttelton and, judging by the standing ovation at the end of opening night, might also be a strong prospect for a West End transfer.

David Chadderton reviewed this production on tour at The Lowry, Salford

Reviewer: Philip Fisher