One Man, Two Guvnors Review
“One Man, Two Guvnors” asks us some tough questions: Is it funny to see an old waiter repeatedly knocked down a flight of stairs? A fat man eat an envelope? A member of the audience humiliated?
The answers, it turns out, are easy: YES!
This weirdly-named British import, based on an 18th century Italian comedy, is hilarious in so many ways, from pratfalls to word-play to pointed commentary, that you could write a paper about it – but, in keeping with the tone of the show, you would then have to eat the paper.
It is simple to sum up the source of much of the humor: James Corden. Corden is best-known in England for the hit television comedy “Gavin and Stacey,” though most-known in my household for having more than two million Twitter followers. Just six years ago, Corden debuted on Broadway in his 20’s as the fat student Timms in “The History Boys,” directed by Nicholas Hytner (director of the National Theatre). Now he returns, with the same director, as a full-fledged star.
In an ill-fitting plaid suit, he plays Francis Henshall, dim-witted, always hungry, and always getting into trouble, then using a kind of stupid cunning to get out of it. He is the “one man” of the title who has two “guvnors,” British slang for bosses.
His two employers are thugs, who are, as we learn, in love with one another.
That takes some explaining. Indeed, the whole plot requires some explaining, including an explanation of why the plot doesn’t really matter.
“One Man, Two Guvnors” is playwright Richard Bean’s adaptation of “A Servant With Two Masters,” a farce written in 1746 by Carlo Goldoni, a prolific playwright greatly influenced by Moliere. As a note in the program points out, Goldoni’s plays were in the theatrical tradition of commedia dell’arte, with its “stock scenarios” and “clearly defined character types,” including “the Harlequin – gluttonous, nimble, stupid, but possessed of a certain low cunning.” This particular theatrical form, which inspired English music hall comedy and vaudeville, included regular interruptions for music and dancing and acrobatics. This is surely why there is a pre-show mini-concert and frequent musical interludes during “One Man, Two Guvnors” by a 60s-style, thin-tie rock band called The Craze. Above all, commedia dell’arte was steeped in improvisation: Until Goldoni came along, there were no scripts.
Bean has transposed the action from 18th century Venice to the seaside English town of Brighton in 1963 but has kept the feel and flavor of commedia dell’arte. The playwright has said that on any given night, improvisation typically makes up about three percent of the proceedings, but on some nights that is ratcheted up to 50 percent.
It is in these improvisations that Corden is at his funniest, interacting with the audience by asking questions, commenting on the answers, hauling a few people on stage to participate in the play. (I suspect much of this – spoiler alert — is more planned/planted than the audience realizes.)
Corden’s manner seems simultaneously genial and devilish, as if he is saying “I don’t mean any harm; this is all in good fun,” but also maybe “I really enjoy making you squirm.” Corden is the kind of talented physical comedian who can elicit roars of laughter by the way he throws a peanut in the air and catches it in his mouth. Hell, he can just look at us a certain way to make us laugh.
But “One Man, Two Guvnors” is far from a one-man show. There is a large cast and an intricate plot, and while I said the plot doesn’t matter, it does provide the excuse for some amusing dialogue and one knock-down funny farcical set piece after another, pulled off skillfully by cast members who share Corden’s gift for comedy. It says something about the nature of their comedic gifts that, in addition to a director credit to Nicholas Hytner, there is also a credit to Cal McCrystal as “Physical Comedy Director.”
Jemima Rooper plays Rachel, one of Francis’s employers, who is dressed in a man’s suit, because she is disguising herself as her dead gangster twin brother. The other employer is Stanley Stubbers, played by Oliver Chris, who loves Rachel and killed her brother. (Intimations of Greek tragedy, however, are completely absent from the stage of the Music Box Theater.) Francis is unaware of their relationship (is unaware that Rachel is a woman), and they are unaware that they both employ Francis; indeed, they are searching for one another in hopes of escaping to Australia, a country that is treated like a running gag – one of the few instances in the show where British and American taste in humor might diverge.
Tom Edden is superb as Alfie, an 87-year-old doddering waiter who keeps on getting injured while trying to serve both bosses in different dining rooms at a pub to which Francis has brought them.
Daniel Rigby gets many laughs as Alan, a talentless bloke who fancies himself an actor, and thus employs exaggerated “artful” poses and makes exuberant pseudo-poetic declarations of love: “My love is ethereal, pure – like..like the kind of water you’re supposed to put in a car battery.” Luckily, he is making these declarations to Pauline (Claire Lams), who is even dimmer than Francis.
Francis has his own love interest, the buxom bookkeeper Dolly, played to a tee by Suzie Toase.
I can picture a lonely member of the audience finding “One Man, Two Guvnors” less funny than the people guffawing in the surrounding seats. Perhaps the English accents will present a barrier, or they will be put off by the show’s willingness to include jokes involving protected classes (the hard-of-hearing, gay people, supporters of Margaret Thatcher), or by the persistent silliness or mildly off-color air: A lawyer character works for the firm of Dangle, Berry and Bush. The most likely scenario is for a theatergoer to be disappointed because of the high expectations set by word of mouth, or reviewers like me, giving the impression that “One Man, Two Guvnors” is the funniest thing on earth.
For up-to-the-minute New York theater news, views and reviews, follow Jonathan Mandell on his Twitter feed at @NewYorkTheater
Broadway World has designated @NewYorkTheater as one of the top theater Twitter feeds: “Talk about a tweeter who knows his Broadway stuff! From news to conversation-starters to commentary, he’s got it all.”
New York Theater Facebook page
One Man, Two Guvnors
At Music Box Theater
By Richard Bean, based on The Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldoni
Songs by Grant Olding
Directed by Nicholas Hytner
Physical comedy directed by Cal McCrystal
Set and costume design by Mark Thompson, lighting design by Mark Henderson, sound design by Paul Arditti
Cast: James Corden as Francis Henshall, Oliver Chris as Stanley Stubbers, Jemima Rooper as Rachel Crabbe, Tom Edden as Alfie, Martyn Ellis as Harry Dangle, Trevor Laird as Lloyd Boateng, Claire Lams as Pauline Clench, Fred Ridgeway as Charlie Clench, Daniel Rigby as Alan Dangle, Suzie Toase as Dolly; also Brian Gonzales, Eli James, Ben Livingston as Gareth, Sarah Manton, Stephen Pilkington, David Ryan Smith and Natalie Smith
Running time: Approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission
Ticket Price: $46.50-$126.50
Buy tickets to One Man, Two Guvnors
Follow us on twitter@thefastertimes