[Image: Emma Barton, Derek Elroy, Jasmyn Banks, Edward Hancock, David Verrey. © Johan Persson 2014]
I had the pleasure of seeing the original run of One Man, Two Guvnors back in 2011, when the play was famed mainly for being James Corden’s return to the National Theatre, years after he first found fame in The History Boys. In the years since, One Man, Two Guvnors has become a phenomenon all of its own making; receiving rave reviews both sides of the Atlantic, being nominated for numerous Oliviers and Tonys, and to date, spawning three UK tours. The play I saw was a delightful mix of old-fashioned fun, audience interaction, physical comedy and verbal dexterity that delighted every audience member in the National, and this third touring version was no less enjoyable.
One Man, Two Guvnors tells, on the whole, the story of a day or two in the life of Francis Henshall (played in this tour by Gavin Spokes). A portly, food-obsessed loveable idiot who manages to get himself two jobs, and therefore two bosses: East End gangster-in-hiding Roscoe Crabbe (actress Alicia Davies) and toff Stanley Stubbers who killed Roscoe not a week ago. Confused yet? Don’t worry. Half the fun of the play is discovering who knows who and how, and whether or not they’ve killed them or want to marry them. To be fair the plotting of the play only really becomes important in the second act, when lives may actually be at stake. Until then it’s easier to let yourself be bowled over by the sheer speed of gags.
Gavin Spokes (Francis Henshall) 2014
Writer Richard Bean, updating an 18th Century Commedia dell’arte play, shifts the setting to 1960s Brighton, suggesting something of the British seaside postcard. It is very much a farce, riddled with misunderstandings, double crossing and people falling over. A lot of falling over. So much so in fact, that the original run was directed by both Nicholas Hytner and physical comedy director Cal McCrystal. So the falling over is world class falling over indeed.
The end of the first act contains a scene that delighted the entire theatre. Francis is to serve his two masters dinner simultaneously. He and an 87 year old waiter attempt to serve lamb, wine and Crepe Suzette (there is a small fire) whilst keeping the two sides of the stage away from each other. The fact that a luckless member of the audience is dragged along with them only adds to the increasing insanity of the scene, which culminates in everything from Grand Marnier to fire extinguisher foam being thrown around the stage with abandon.
It’s worth saying at this point, that if you really don’t enjoy physical comedy, then it is unlikely the play will be for you. Despite being very cleverly written and containing some lovely performances, it is most definitely a play that lives on the energy present on stage. A Scooby Doo-style chase sequence merely hints at the Mr Bean, Jacque Tati and Marcel Marceau influences on show. And so if the thought of any of them turns you off then I can’t promise you an evening out you’ll adore.
Footage from ‘One Man, Two Guvnors’, Leeds Grand Theatre 2014. (c) National Theatre Productions.
But for the rest of us? It’s a joy. It’s said that simple minds require only the simplest of pleasures. But I prefer to think that when something is so well put together that it appears to be a breeze, the chances are it isn’t. Clearly, a huge amount of work has gone into rehearsals and continues for the running time of the play. As props, audience members and the sets are all used with precision timing.
This is where the real delight in the performances lies. Whilst I can’t honestly say every character lived up to that original London run, that doesn’t denigrate the actors on stage in this tour. Gareth Spokes gives a mini whirlwind of a performance as he fights with himself, requests sandwiches from the audience and eats letters (almost) by accident. He interacts with the audience in short sections that borders on being stand up, and he is clearly having an absolute ball up on stage, which really shows in his performance. Other standouts include Patrick Warner as posh, cricket-bat-wielding twit Stanley, Michael Dylan as the ancient waiter Alfie, and most notably, wannabe actor Alan Dangle – played without hint of self-awareness by Edward Hancock. Edward elicited howls of laughter from the (surprisingly young) audience merely by standing… well, funnily.
Michael Dylan (Alfie) © Johan Persson
‘The farce’ (as so perfectly shown in Michael Frayn’s Noises Off) is a genre that doesn’t require quality so much as quantity of jokes, pratfalls, and innuendo. And whilst One Man, Two Guvnors doesn’t skimp on any of these, it does them all with tongue firmly in cheek and its heart on its sleeve. The original production was a tour-de-force of comedy. A genuinely hilarious and surprising play, which was better by half that it ever needed to be. And this tour certainly lives up to its National Theatre original. It may be hampered slightly by smaller stages and slightly less vigour, but you’d have to be very cynical to say anything other than my final paragraph:
One Man, Two Guvnors is a very, very funny couple of hours. If you let yourself be carried along by the tireless performances, you’ll leave the theatre with a huge grin on your face. And, if you’re lucky, a touch of fire extinguisher on your jacket.