James Corden continues touring success of One Man, Two Guv'nors
- Jonny Ensall
- 27 October 2011
National Theatre show treats audiences, but reveals the craft behind the magic
One Man, Two Guv’nors is no longer a play that needs much of an introduction. It’s one of the most critically and commercially successful productions of the 21st century, now on tour from the National Theatre, and gathering more momentum, column inches and raving fans as it travels. It’s the show that reunited actor James Corden with director Nicholas Hytner after The History Boys. Notably, it’s restored Corden’s reputation as a top comic talent. The big question is, is it as good on tour as all those five-star reviews suggest? The answer is, almost.
There is a long list of reasons to love it, however. The performance is so entertaining it feels strangely improper for an audience to be having such a good time in the theatre. Every aspect is tilted towards the punters' enjoyment. None of the play’s clever twists or beautifully choreographed slapstick moments give away any of the difficulties of their creation. This is a taut piece of theatre, perfected to seem as natural and carefree as an actors’ improvisation night – at once intellectual and disarmingly accessible.
The intellectual side of things comes from writer Richard Bean’s use of the elements of commedia dell’arte in redrawing the story of 18th century Italian playwright Goldoni’s Servant of Two Masters in 1960s Brighton. James Corden is muscle-for-hire Francis Henshall. He is also – as Corden informs the audience during one of the play’s many self-referential points – Harlequin, the blundering servant of the traditional commedia. He’s the eponymous man whose desire for a fat pay cheque leads him to take on two jobs. His greed inevitably gets him into trouble, and also throws the destinies of two pairs of lovers (also stock commedia characters) into peril.
These allusions to Italian theatre actually give the script a good excuse to be very obvious. Commedia dell’arte provides an escape from the idea that big stage comedy ought to smart, subtle and observational. This isn’t a sitcom-era exploration of romantic mores; it delivers the same sharp kick in the comedy gonads that an audience 300 years ago would have enjoyed. Though the script is funny – Oliver Chris’ posho public school boy and Daniel Rigby’s pompous thesp are particularly credible for this Edinburgh audience – the real genius lies in the slapstick gags. Cal McCrystal was the physical comedy expert who worked with Hytner, and his impact has been well publicised. Watch carefully and you’ll see that Corden (who is genuinely brilliant) doesn’t put a foot wrong throughout two-and-a-half hours of seat-of-his-pants buffoonery.
Like the flimsy sets that the characters occasionally fall through, any idea of the fourth wall is quickly smashed in. Audience members are called up onto the stage for improvised panto-esque scenes. Those left seated squeal at the ad libs, but it’s more interesting to observe the attention to detail that has gone into preventing theatregoers from seeing which supposedly spontaneous parts are repeated night after night.
So why only almost five stars? Because, despite hilarious performances all round, there are some lines in the script that misfire, and there’s an over-reliance on supposedly artless use of the audience that seasoned stand-up fans would see through immediately as stagecraft. This raises the interesting idea that One Man, Two Guv’nors’ strongest suit is the single-mindedness of its purpose to make the audience have a good time. The revelation here is that a critically acclaimed stage show from the NT needn’t be anything other than a laugh-along riot. This is, of course, the basic principle of most of the comedy sets you’d see at any club across the country. At those venues the comedians who are picking up five-star reviews have moved on to more complicated, convention-twisting – but no less funny – territory.
Still, those comedians don’t have a live skiffle band opening each act – just another reason why the play is so irresistible. Given its intentions One Man, Two Guv’nors is near perfect, with comic acting of an impeccably high standard. There’s little this reviewer has to add to all the others’ effusive praise. It’s a must-see.