One Man, Two Guvnors
Octagon Theatre Bolton, Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse, Theatre by the Lake
It's been three years in the making due to delays over COVID and the building refurbishment, but the Octagon has finally partnered with two other great North West theatres, Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse and Theatre by the Lake in Keswick, on a new production directed by Artistic Director Lotte Wakeham of one of the most successful new comedy plays of recent years.
Richard Bean based his play on Carlo Goldoni's 18th-century farce The Servant of Two Masters, which brought elements of the Italian tradition of Commedia dell'arte into the respectable theatre but also shows clear influences from Ancient Roman comedy, particular Plautus' Menaechmi, which was also a source for Shakespeare—you may spot hints of The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night in the plot of this play.
Bean has, however, moved the story to Brighton in 1963 and the house of ageing gangster Charlie "the duck" Clench—the Pantaloon character of Goldoni—where his daughter, Pauline, is celebrating her engagement to wannabe actor Alan Dangle, the son of Charlie's solicitor, Harry Dangle. Pauline was promised to gangster Roscoe Crabbe as a wife who would be seen with him to conceal his homosexuality (still illegal in 1963), but Roscoe was murdered by his twin sister's lover, posh ex-public schoolboy Stanley Stubbers. But then Francis Henshall arrives, saying he is the servant of Roscoe Crabbe who is alive and well and arriving shortly—which he does.
As the coincidences and unlikely twists start to pile up, Francis is outside the Cricketer's Arms, complaining about not having eaten, when he gets the chance to also be the servant of Stanley Stubbers, who has just arrived in Brighton. He now has two masters but can't let either of them know that he is working for the other, leading to a frantic dinner in the pub when he is serving both masters in different rooms at the same time while satisfying his own hunger, helped by a geriatric waiter with a pacemaker and a severe case of the shakes.
The play is a rich combination of 'high' and 'low' comedy, with broad characters indulging in clever wordplay followed by pure slapstick—quite a daunting prospect when you don't have the rehearsal periods and resources of the National Theatre like the original production. On press night, the opening scene was getting plenty of laughs but I didn't think it was quite there; the rhythm of the dialogue wasn't getting the most out of the comedy and some of the characters could have been pushed much further into the ridiculous.
However, when the slapstick comes in, with the help of physical comedy director John Nicholson from Peepolykus, there is no holding back, especially in the dinner scene where Peepolykus actor Javier Marzan as old waiter Alfie falls or is thrown down the stairwell several times. This and some of the comic violence (fight director Kenan Ali) received loud gasps from the audience as it looks genuinely dangerous.
Jordan Pearson is very much like James Corden, who created the role, in his playing of Francis Henshall, but he pulls off well the many aspects of it, from the very physical knockabout routines to the complicated verbal wit to the banter with the audience. As Rachel / Roscoe Crabbe, Siobhan Athwal gets the balance just right between the blokish gangster and the love-sick girl, which can be very funny. Laurie Jamieson is brilliantly awful as Stanley Stubbers—it's hard to see what Rachel sees in him as he is enough of an upper class idiot to get a place in the Cabinet. Qasim Mahmoud is suitably annoying as Alan Dangle, behaving as he believes a great artist of the stage should.
In the slightly less over-the top roles, Rodney Matthews tries to hold everything together as Charlie, Karl Seth is solicitor Harry Dangle, Lauren Sturgess is Charlie's not-too-bright daughter Pauline, Alexander Bean is Charlie's old friend (from Parkhurst) Lloyd Boateng and Matthew Ganley is Gareth, who works in the pub, while Polly Lister becomes Francis's love interest as Dolly, Charlie's secretary. All also play instruments in the skiffle band on the balcony, sing or both for the numbers linking the scenes by Grant Olding.
Set designer Colin Falconer has made the most of the two levels of the Octagon stage with an impressive set, especially in the dining scene and the seaside scene at the end. This play also contains the best use of an audience plant I've ever seen, and the person involved in this production is very good indeed. I'll say no more about that...
The last pure comedy I saw at the Octagon was 'socially distanced', which takes the edge off the audience reactions, but here there were full-throated belly laughs from beginning to end in a packed auditorium. While there are a few rough edges at the moment, this is still a very funny night out, long for a comedy at 2½ hours but never outstaying its welcome. A play like this always continues to develop when it is before an audience, so I'm sure it will get better and better during its run at the three theatres.
Reviewer: David Chadderton