Friday 14 September 2012

One Man, Two Guvnors @ Haymarket Theatre Royal

After nearly a year on the West End, you may worry that One Man, Two Guvnors may be running stale.  But fear not - this play is still the funniest show in town.

It's an update by Richard Bean of the 1743 play Servant of Two Masters by Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni.  All the elements of commedia dell'arte have been retained - from the one-dimensional stock characters (servant, master, lovers), to cross-dressing and the emphasis on improvised comedy - but now transported to Brighton in 1963.

What is improvised and what is scripted is very much up for debate - for the audience at least.  The script is full of hilarious similes ("love goes through marriage like shit through a small dog"), but the cast seemingly deviate frequently.  Even after months of performances, the cast are still able to keep each other on their toes.  

Much of the improvisation stems from audience interaction, with the odd pundit pulled on-stage in total embarrassment as well as countless asides to the audience, the fourth wall thoroughly smashed.  And when, in this performance, the audience answered back, the cast were unable to contain their amusement.  Clearly the audience were in a particularly jovial mood, but far from unprofessional, the laughter only served to escalate the comedy to new levels.

The result is a mad, satirical farce that's as enjoyable as it is ridiculous and nonsensical.  Whilst one character assured us this wasn't a panto, One Man, Two Guvnors does on occasion stoop to such levels - the dinner service scene a clear slop scene equivalent.  Yet the slapstick humour and hammy acting are never less than hysterical.  

Indeed, the over the top acting is all part of the style - and none more so than Owain Arthur as Francis (the titular 'man').  With the image of James Corden playing the role so ingrained in the public consciousness, it's difficult to imagine anyone else living up to expectations, but Arthur offers a brilliant performance full of energy, boundless enthusiasm and an infectiously cheeky innocence.  Other highlights included Ben Mansfield as Stanley (seemingly influenced by Armstrong & Miller and Matt Berry from The IT Crowd); Jody Prenger as the knowingly seductive Dolly; and Martin Barrass as the elderly Alfie, whose staircase escapades had the audience in stitches.

The production also creates a suitable sense of period.  The set and costumes are immediately recognisable as from the 1960s, the set especially making excellent use of perspective.  Most of all is the use of on-stage band for the scene changes, occasionally joined by the various characters, whose tight performances never allow the mood to dip between scenes.

What's interesting is how well the play is currently performing on Broadway.  One Man, Two Guvnors is a stereotypically British comedy and the few Americans in this audience didn't quite understand all the jokes - but perhaps the script has been altered for Broadway theatre-goers?

On either side of the Atlantic, though, this is a production of crazy, silly fun that is not to be missed.  Never has a safety curtain been so necessary.


Watch: One Man, Two Guvnors is now booking until January 2013.