Richard Bean: Plays 6
This volume may only contain three plays but they make a nice, varied selection that show off one of the country’s leading playwrights to good effect.
One Man, Two Guvnors
It is hard to believe that anybody would disagree with the statement in the introduction to the volume by Michael Coveney, declaring that One Man, Two Guvnors is both the funniest play and production at the National Theatre in living memory and the funniest play in the West End since Michael Frayn’s Noises Off.
It was almost inevitable that, when the National Theatre was looking to launch its coronavirus response in fine style, the opening offering would be this glorious work.
The comedy is unremitting to the point where, on its West End opening, this critic was worried that his companion might expire, having seemingly laughed solidly for 10 minutes before the interval without remembering to breathe.
The big question was whether the pleasure actually rested primarily in the direction of Nicholas Hytner and the star turn by James Corden or Richard Bean’s script.
It is literally a pleasure to report that, while stage business undoubtedly enhances the experience, one cannot read the text without bursting out laughing at regular intervals, while there is also a more leisurely opportunity to enjoy the clever structuring, based on Carlo Goldoni’s commedia dell’arte classic A Servant to Two Masters and find characterisation.
The updating and relocation to Brighton in the 1960s work a treat, with hilarious tales of love amongst gangsters, mistaken identity and the driving greed of central figure Francis Henshall combining perfectly.
Such was Sir Nicholas Hytner’s admiration for one of his favourite playwrights that he commissioned Bean to write Young Marx as the play with which to open the new Bridge Theatre further along London’s Riverside from the director’s old haunt at the National.
This is a play that definitely adds value when read, either independently or having already been viewed on stage, since there are so many great lines as well as challenging concepts, many of which can fly past in a lively production without time for proper consideration. That is particularly the case where, once again, this play has more than its fair share of laughs.
That might come as a surprise given that its central figures are Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, jousting and forming a music hall-style double act while trying to save the world from capitalism.
Although some of the history may give way to a need to tell a good story, the depiction of the Marx family struggling to survive in London, ironically often helped out by rich friends, is compelling.
There are plenty of complications to add to the fun including an awkward, undesired pregnancy and a spy attempting to destroy the new movement’s supporters on the European mainland.
Beyond all the fun, Young Marx contains at least a modicum of political theorising and more than its fair share of pathos.
In the volume’s introduction, Michael Coveney irresistibly suggests that, “as in Young Marx, Bean riffs on history and stirs the pot, like an alternative comedy love child of Tom Stoppard and Peter Barnes.”
The Hypocrite is set in the writer’s home city of Hull as Civil War rages in 1642. The drama centres on the duplicitous activities of Sir John Hotham, not so much keen to keep his head above water as on his shoulders.
Hull threatens to become a battleground between the Cavaliers supporting King Charles I and Roundheads favouring Parliament. As an affluent local landowner, Sir John is caught between a number of different imperatives.
Ignoring minor pleasures such as sexual relationships with the servants, he tries to humour his long-suffering but adulterous wife, marry off two unruly adult children and raise much-needed funds to protect his impecunious estate.
What ensues is a highly enjoyable comedy containing familiar flashes of Bean humour but also some trenchant commentary on English history and the city of his birth.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher