Review: One Man, Two Guvnors – Theatre Royal Haymarket, London

I’ve always thought a stage show about an understudy promoted to lead role would make a good plot – oh wait, 42nd Street has been there, done that. Life, though, has imitated art as, following James Corden’s departure to open the show on Broadway, One Man, Two Guvnors producers have taken the rare step of promoting his understudy into the leading man slot.

It proves to be a masterstroke, with Owain Arthur not only rising to the challenge but, in many ways, surpassing Corden’s original. While Corden revelled in the slapstick and had the cheeky-chappy routine down to a fine art, there was somehow a nagging feeling that we were watching a James Corden comic routine. Owain Arthur brings a freshness to the role of bumbling sidekick Francis Henshall, unwittingly working for two ‘guvnors’ when all he really wants is a good meal.

Arthur’s performance is a wonder to behold. Played in his natural Welsh lilt, opposed to Corden’s estuary English, in a way it’s a more subtle performance but one that still provides the overblown clowning when required. There’s an easy rapport with the audience, and it’s still inadvisable for the shy to sit in the very front rows. There’s a charm in Arthur’s portrayal that’s infectious. One gets the feeling that following this performance we shall be seeing many more leading roles from Arthur.

As their predecessors head off across the Atlantic the new company provide more than worthy replacements.
There’s an impressive performance from Jodie Prenger as a lusty Dolly, subject of Henshall’s nervous flirtations, Hannah Spearritt revels in the dim wittedness of Pauline, while Daniel Ings mocks every wanna-be actor with his pent up aggression as Alan ‘Orlando’ Dangle. There’s also great comic work from Gemma Whelan as avenging gangster Rachel, and Ben Mansfield’s nice-but dim ex public schoolboy, Stanley.

Giving Arthur a run for his money in the comedy stakes, though, is Martin Barrass’ geriatric waiter, Alfie. Doddering doesn’t quite cover it, as food precariously clings to plates as Barrass throws himself around the stage in a performance that reduces the audience to uncontrolled laughter.

Nick Hyntner’s direction still packs the punches where required, and has lost none of its energy in its third home. In some ways a second viewing even enhances the comedy as you can pick up lines lost in the laughter first time around. Richard Bean’s script is packed with so many rapid fire jokes that its nuances are able to be savoured on repeat viewing. That’s a rare accolade in farce, where normally the element of surprise is key to enjoyment, but it’s a testament to the skill both onstage and off that, while you know somethings are coming, the anticipation just adds to the enjoyment.

Those who thought that One Man, Two Guvnors success was tied to its original casting have been proved delightfully wrong. As the former understudy takes his well-earned and justified place in the spotlight, one suspects that Arthur’s own understudy, Matthew Woodyatt, is eagerly looking at the next cast change. With its current cast though, One Man, Two Guvnors remains the funniest show in town.

Photo by Johan Persson

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