In some ways this is the least necessary review you’ll read on this blog, given that ‘One Man, Two Guvnors’ has already proved itself a star of the 2011 scene. It gathered a clutch of 5-star reviews for its extended run at the National Theatre, trotted off for a successful regional tour, and has punched its way into the mainstream with a recent opening at the West End’s Adelphi Theatre. Now it might be that you don’t like farce, or you’re not English, and you think it’s therefore not quite your cup of tea (though that’s probably not how you’d put it, if both of the above were true). But I don’t like farce, and I’m not all that English, so I just wanted to take a moment to encourage you to treat yourself and get some tickets if you possibly can. Either here in London, or when it transfers to Broadway, which it will.
I suspect you know this, but here’s the premise: there’s one man, and he has two guvnors. That is, two bosses. Fired from his skiffle band, he evolves from being mostly indolent to being mildly busy and confused, a bit like most of us when we graduated from college. The confusion comes from juggling two bosses who know nothing of each other’s existence, as well as a handful of other ‘mistaken identity’ devices. I know it’s borderline heresy to say it, but I find mistaken identity about the most irritating of all possible plot turns – it gets me mumbling grumpily about certain operas and Shakespeare plays – so why on earth was I gasping and giggling for most of the evening?
The answer lies quite substantially in James Corden. He picked up some rather petty critical sniping for some less successful TV experiments in recent years, but you have to remember that he was a star amongst several other stars-to-be in the National’s smash-hit History Boys. There’s no way that the bitter-sweet sitcom ‘Gavin and Stacey’ would have hit the sublime notes it did without his sharp writing and nuanced performance as Smithy. And you see the best of both of those career highs here: his hypnotic physical presence, his emotional grasp of the audience, his relaxed yet wickedly timed humour, his warm humanising of an otherwise unappealing character. It’s an extraordinary performance.
A second charm arrives unexpectedly in the middle of the evening. The play was written by Richard Bean based on The Servant of Two Masters, a piece by Carlo Goldoni from 1743. The Goldoni template was in the Commedia dell’Arte tradition – namely, it had a fairly simple plot, familiarly drawn characters, a smattering of physical comedy, as well as a good deal of improvised dialogue. And this modern-yet-traditional interpretation honours all of those, including the improvisational feel. Half way through the play – boom, the fourth wall drops, and Corden is riffing with the audience. No point me saying anything more on this, for obvious reasons.
Surprising delight number three: it’s a play with songs. The reason that James Corden’s loveable rogue (I apologise for the cliche, but that’s what he is) is on the fiddle in the first place is because of losing his footing on the bottom rungs of a musical career. Cue engaging/surreal musical interludes that somehow mark the mood perfectly, delivered by a really very good skiffle band called The Craze. One of the later songs is a highlight of the show, and it involves an instrument you will not have seen before. (No, it’s not as lewd as that – shame on you. But I applaud your spirit.)
And lastly, the wider cast is a draw in itself. It’s easy to see this as a one-man show – ho ho – but somewhere between the inspired casting and Nicholas Hytner’s directing, the ensemble has become a beautifully integrated set of talents. Oliver Chris in particular stands out as the posh, dim chap. It’s hard for me to accept that I liked a play whose two main characters could be described as ‘loveable rogue’ and ‘posh, dim chap’, but there you are. And lucky for us, this original cast has transferred intact to the Adelphi.
I did think it would be possibly too idiosyncratic a beast to stray too far beyond the UK, but my American sister-in-law and fiance are visiting us in London this week and they loved it, despite having seats so bad that they should have been paid by the Adephi to sit in them. I conclude that wild international success is assured. If you can get tickets, prepare to laugh not entirely wisely – but almost certainly well.