Richard Bean's One Man, Two Guvnors is widely regarded as one of the funniest and most successful plays in recent history, receiving rave reviews across the board. Hugely successful National Theatre and West-End runs have led to a Broadway transfer, but the show continues on the West-End with some new cast members – most notably Owain Arthur, James Corden's understudy, who has some mighty big boots to fill. Any worries, however, are swept aside almost immediately – the show is still brilliant and fully deserves the almighty praise it has received.
One Man, Two Guvnors is a modern retelling of Carlo Goldini's classic The Servant of Two Masters; inspired by commedia del'arte pieces that came before, it transposes the comic sketches of the original form into a full-length play about the trials and tribulations of the servant stock character, Arlecchino, as he tries to serve two different masters simultaneously. In Richard Bean's version, the action is moved to 1960s Brighton, with all corresponding characters updated into modernity – the cowardly knight becomes the English toff, the pompous doctor becomes a pompous lawyer, and Arlecchino becomes Francis Henshell, an ex-skiffle band member and 'minder'. Retaining much of the original plot – including the infamous 'serving two dinners' scene – this is fast-paced slapstick fun, with a generous dollop of wit and verbal dexterity thrown in.
It would be a little pointless to recant the plot much further, criminally convoluted as it is – with mistaken personalities, cross-dressing and various items that get passed back and forth, it would be very easy to lose track; luckily, the character of Francis is there to explain and guide, although he is often the one confusing the situation even further! It's to Owain Arthur's credit (as well as director Nicholas Hytner's) that the show remains clear and comprehensible – although, for the most part, it is such riotous fun that it doesn't really matter who's tricked whom. The characters rush around the stage from one comic misadventure to another, and the quality of the slapstick is truly impressive. None impress here more than Arthur, who throws himself (often quite literally) across the stage with abandon, managing to perform this physically demanding part without even a thought to the man he's replaced. It's wonderful to see an understudy given such a chance to shine – they've even added in a line or two to befit Arthur's own Welsh accent.
It's really quite surprising how little Corden's shadow looms over this production – the confidence and vigour is high across the board, with all actors getting an opportunity to bring the house down. Daniel Ings has a number of lovely moments as Alan the actor, and Ben Mansfield plays his upper-class twit of a character with the right combination of louche charm and long-limbed gawkiness. A special mention must also go to Martin Barass as the pacemaker-powered waiter – with almost as much slapstick to pull off as Arthur, in a far shorter time, his perennial pratfalls are beautifully timed and utterly hilarious.
This show is easily one of the funniest I've seen in a while – there's even audience interaction, which I was disappointed to find out was planted (although, in hindsight, bringing a poor audience member on stage, spraying them with a fire extinguisher and running them into a door might be a little too much...). The fact that all of this madness can work so slickly, with musical interludes from most characters (with able support from skiffle band The Craze), is also pretty impressive. Admittedly, the tone can be uneven – it does feel a little like panto sometimes – but those moments are few and far between, and I'd be nit-picking if I let those influence how much I enjoyed the show. As said above, it deserves the praise – and the recasting seems to have had no impact on the quality.
Name of Show: One Man, Two Guvnors
Genre: Slapstick comedy
Playwright: Richard Bean (adapted from Carlo Goldoni)
Premiered: June 2011 (National Theatre)
This Production Opened: 2 March 2012
Tweet: The Tony-winning comedy keeps running in the West-End - commedia dell'arte meets skiffle bands in Richard Bean's story of Brighton gangsters.
Synopsis: Francis Henshall, ex-skiffle band member and general bumpkin, manages to get hired to serve two different masters: Roscoe Crabbe, gritty Brighton gangster, and murderer-on-the-lam Stanley Stubbers. However, little is as it seems - Roscoe is actually Rachel (Roscoe's twin brother), who is Stanley's lover and has disguised herself as her brother in order to marry Pauline, daughter to a local mob boss, and receive the large dowry. Confusion abounds as Francis confuses guvnor for guvnor, passing letters, money and other paraphernalia to the wrong people, although things (unsurprisingly) all end in smiles.
- Francis frequently interacts with audience, at times even getting them on stage!
- The infamous dinner scene, where Francis fails spectacularly to serve dinner to both guvnors simultaneously.
Why See It: It's won awards and had hugely successful runs all over the world and lives up to the hype: a hilarious slapstick comedy with plenty of gorgeous confusion. Owain Arthur is particularly brilliant, not worried about filling James Corden's shoes in the slightest.
Caveat: It's fast and furious slapstick and all rather silly - which doesn't rock everyone's boat, understandably. There's little straight wit and absolutely no grit.
- This show has won the Critic's Circle Award (Best New Play), the Evening Standard Award (Best Play) and a Tony Award (Best Actor: James Corden), and has scored almost unanimous five-star reviews. It has toured, is playing on Broadway AND the West End, and will be touring again later this year.
- The play is based on Carlo Goldoni's classic The Servant of Two Masters, with most of the plot (and stock characters) intact. Bean's modernisation moves the plot to Brighton in the 1960s, and includes nods to the mods and rockers, the Beatles, and notorious London gangsters the Kray twins - as well as a raft of timely music.
- When the tour starts up again this autumn, comedian Rufus Hound will be taking over from Owain Arthur - his second professional theatre role!
In Richard Bean's English version of Carlo Goldoni's classic Italian comedy The Servant of Two Masters, sex, food and money are high on the agenda. Fired from his skiffle band, Francis Henshall becomes minder to Roscoe Crabbe, a small time East End hood, now in Brighton to collect £6,000 from his fiancee's dad. But Roscoe is really his sister Rachel posing as her own dead brother, who's been killed by her boyfriend Stanley Stubbers. Holed up at The Cricketers' Arms, the permanently ravenous Francis spots the chance of an extra meal ticket and takes a second job with one Stanley Stubbers, who is hiding from the police and waiting to be re-united with Rachel. To prevent discovery, Francis must keep his two guvnors apart. Simple. Suitable for ages 14+
Theatre Royal Haymarket18 Suffolk Street (entrance in Haymarket)
London Greater London United Kingdom SW1Y 4HT
Monday to Saturday 7.30pm, Wednesday and Saturday 2.30pm
Duration: 2 hours 30 minutes
Owain Arthur and Ben Mansfield © One Man, Two Guvnors
Martin Barass © One Man, Two Guvnors
Daniel Ings, Hannah Spearritt and Jodie Prenger © One Man, Two Guvnors