Skiffle bands and slapstick are not usual partners for classic 18th Century Commedia dell’arte; however, they are perfect for Richard Bean’s hilarious update of Carlo Goldoni’s 1746 classic The Servant of Two Masters – ingeniously transposed to 1960s Brighton and renamed One Man, Two Guvnors.
The plot itself is pure farce and, as such, doesn’t need overanalysing. Francis Henshall finds himself working as a minder for not one, but two bosses, both keen to avoid the police. Henshall isn’t always the brightest of folk and this duplicity easily confuses him, especially when his mind is more focused on where his next meal is coming from. Add into the mix two sets of tangled romantic liaisons, some petty gangland politics, mistaken identities and an octogenarian waiter and you’re all set for classic farce.
Although standard farce material, what Bean does well, though, is take the elements of farce but mixes in some real warmth for the character. Yes, they may be over the top creations but they are all immediately recognisable. Bean and director Nick Hytner also cleverly work the audience into the action with knowing asides and even audience participation. How much of this audience response is pre-scripted and how much improvised on the night is subject to debate but it does give the piece a real lively heartbeat.
Hytner also makes excellent use of composer Grant Olding’s skiffle band (The Craze), both as a pre-show warm up and during scene changes. The band (Olding himself, Benjamin Brooker, Richard Coughlan and Philip James) set the period scene nicely with songs that evoke the era but with just a twist in the lyrics.
For farce to work you need committed and skilled performers and, here, Hytner has assembled a first rate company. Gags are performed with just the correct level of tongue in cheek, timing is spot on and that ability to cope when things go slightly wrong is wonderfully demonstrated.
Leading the cast as Henshall is James Corden in a performance of immense warmth and personality that makes Henshall instantly likeable despite his buffoonery. Corden’s comic timing is spot-on, delivering an easy rapport with the audience and an infectious sense of mischief.
This is more than a one man vehicle, however, and several other performance stick in the mind. Oliver Chris’ delightful parody of the ultimate ‘nice but dim’ public school boy; Suzie Toase’s busty Brighton Belle, Tom Edden’s trembling aged waiter and recent BAFTA award winner Daniel Rigby’s gloriously old school wannabe luvvie ‘Orlando’ Arthur Dangle.
The second half’s pace may drag marginally in comparison to the hilarious first but in many ways perhaps that’s wise, giving audiences a chance to savour Bean’s witty one liners in more depth. Purists may say that Goldoni’s original needs no updating but Bean and Hyntner have created something special, a production that not only honours the original but stands on its own as a great piece of theatre.
One suspects that the National Theatre have a major hit on their hands here and that One Man, Two Guvnors will have a long life after this initial run.