One Man, Two Guvnors

Richard Bean
National Theatre
to

Take yourself back to 2011. James Corden is in the midst of creating television gold with his brilliant show Gavin and Stacey, is the new presenter of a sports TV programme and is guest appearing in Doctor Who episodes. Despite the blip of his (self-acclaimed) disastrous duo sketch show, James Corden seems to be everywhere on our TV screens.

Thank goodness he decided to accept Nicholas Hytner’s invitation to take on the role of Francis Henshall in One Man, Two Guvnors at the National Theatre. Reunited with Hytner after another NT smash, The History Boys, before the fame really started to kick in, this is a tour de force performance that truly displays Corden’s skill as a physical performer.

The National Theatre is presenting a programme of its previous shows for a week at a time over April, starting with One Man, Two Guvnors from the 2 April and ending with Tamsin Greig’s Malvolia in Twelfth Night which will be available until the 30 April. The screenings are free with the NT asking for donations from the watching audience. Early indications for Thursday night’s opener of One, Man... suggest an audience of more than 200,000 people—the equivalent of 224 sold-out performances in the Lyttelton Theatre.

This is a brilliant production with a fantastic cast and no weak links. Corden throws himself into the performance and is hardly off stage. His physical work is clown-like and totally encapsulates the Arlecchino commedia dell’arte servant role. He has a natural charm with the audience and manages to play along, even with those that have been planted. The self-fight scene is brilliantly worked and showcases Corden’s ability to flit comically between the various facets of Francis’s character.

The production is well worth catching as much for the ensemble cast as for Corden. Oliver Chris as the grown-up public school boy Stanley Stubbers is terrific, with brilliant one-liners and an arrogance that is too funny to be annoying. Richard Bean’s script is slightly on the borderline of decency with Stubbers’s lines, particularly those that intimate sexual abuse at boarding school. Given the scandals that have come out since 2011, the ‘unspoken’ truths that are perhaps alluded to in the Swinging '60s are all too familiar now to perhaps be as tongue-in-cheek as first suggested.

Even so, Chris creates a fantastically superficial character in Stubbers. His ability to wrap his mouth around the wordplay with Corden is impressive, as are his copious amounts of body hair and car horn playing. If you have seen the show, you will know what I am referring to. If you haven’t, perhaps this will entice you to capture it before the week is out!

There are terrific cameos from Tom Edden, who steals the show with his performance as 87-year-old waiter, Alfie. There is a touch of commedia, of Lecoq, of David Jason in Porridge about this performance which is wonderfully comic. The way in which he becomes the victim of countless physical attacks with perfect timing is joyous and makes the dinner scene a real stand-out. Claire Lams creates a larger-than-life, nice-but-dim Pauline with the refrain, “I don’t understand” being delivered with such aplomb that it almost becomes a catchphrase that we look forward to hearing.

The music from the house band The Craze helps to add context to the production and “The Brighton Line” is a catchy tune which immediately brings us to the Sussex coast. It is great seeing the cast being involved in these transitional moments, with my personal favourite being Martyn Ellis as Harry Dangle singing “My Old Man’s a Gannet!” which had a Chas and Dave, Cockney knees-up feel to it. Considering the music, I felt when I watched the original, and I still feel to a certain extent, that some of the songs are a little long and slow down the pace of the piece.

However, this production is a triumph for Nicholas Hytner and the NT. A great script, a terrific cast and entertaining from start to finish. It is almost as good online as it was live and comes with the highest of recommendations to catch it whilst you still can.

Reviewer: John Johnson