Sitting down to write a review of the phenomenon which is One Man Two Guvnors almost seems superfluous. What can I say about it that hasn’t already been said? You either love it (and most people seem to) or hate it – though generally I’ve found that’s fuelled by an antipathy to James Corden rather than the play itself. But as my second choice for #30plays30days I really don’t think it could have been bettered.
Richard Bean’s barnstormer of a play, based on Goldoni’s Servant of Two Masters, first saw the light of day at the National Theatre in 2011. If you want a fascinating account of how the piece came into being then get hold of director Nicholas Hytner’s book Balancing Acts. It then went on to take the western world by storm playing round the globe and for an extended period in both the West End and on Broadway. Cinema screenings followed and last night it premiered as the first shot in the National Theatre At Home season on You Tube– by this morning it was fast approaching a million views.
Rather than rehash the plot, which most readers will know anyway – here’s a quick visual reminder
What makes this production so special , of course, is its sheer infectious joyousness – one type of infection which we are sorely in need of right now. Its fast-moving physicality and dextrous word play make it a delight for both the eye and the ear and even the James Corden naysayers must admit he is right on top of the material and effortlessly commands the stage. His turn as Francis Henshall (and it is, in many senses, a turn rather than a deeply realised psychological interpretation) is an everyman figure who quickly elicits our sympathies as he is driven by the fundamental needs for food and a relationship. This is one of the many tropes about pairs which underpin the show – the title, the constant references to twins and the simultaneously served dinners being some of the others. The latter is a scene I never tire of watching for the expertise and timing delivered by all participants.
It is also great to see some of the other classic characters revived for one more hurrah. Oliver Chris as upper-class twit Stanley (“Buzz wham”) and especially Tom Edden as geriatric Alfie (“Chicken balls”) are just perfect casting. The rest of the team are no slouches either and I was particularly struck this time round by the contributions of Suzie Toase as the very knowing Dolly and Claire Lams as the very unknowing Pauline (“I don’t understand”!) Running Corden a close second for performance of the evening was Daniel Rigby as pretentious actor Orlando/Alan whose obsession with bus timetables and the purchase of a knife from Woolworths (“WOOLIES!) were comic highlights.
Having seen the live show twice before and been involved in a production myself (see here) it was fascinating to see how the highly scripted though apparently spontaneous commedia dell’arte lazzi sequences worked (“lazzi” = the Harlequin’s, i.e. Henshall’s, comic interludes). I still remember the palpable shock which ran around the audience at the National when an audience member was roundly abused on stage. This was comedy with a dangerous edge and if those bits didn’t quite work in a recorded version, I still suspect that a lot of people watching for the first time were taken aback.
That aside what a great show it is/was. Perfect casting, superb direction, bang on costumes and set, joyous musical interludes, literally laugh a minute dialogue, business and visual gags – simply one of my top five theatrical experiences. The National’s drive to make it a communal event last night- albeit within the boundaries of social distancing – was exactly the right call. Social media discussions and reminiscences provided the necessary support systems with an online theatre programme, catch up interviews, a podcast, an OMTG bingo card and even a video of the reformed (fantastic) band from the show The Craze. I do hope it will continue to warm the proverbial cockles for a long time to come whether it’s your first or your twenty first watch.
Production photos by Johan Persson
Everyone could do with a hearty laugh at the moment and this production delivers in spades. I thoroughly recommend this streamed version of One Man Two Guvnors from the National Theatre. It is available until April 8th here – enjoy!
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