A commercial transfer of “One Man, Two Guvnors,” originally produced at the National Theater in London, opened on Broadway last night. The following is David Benedict’s review of the original U.K. staging.
Hold the front page: Vaudeville Discovered Alive and Well… and living uproariously in Nicholas Hytner’s joyous production of “One Man, Two Guvnors.” Never heard of it? That’s because it’s Richard Bean’s terrific 1960s revamp of Goldoni’s much-loved commedia dell’arte farce “A Servant Of Two Masters.” From Grant Olding’s infectiously sunny skiffle-band songs through to James Corden’s knockout performance in the title role, the production lifts audiences from mere happiness to eye-watering, comic hysteria.
The cheerful, brightly lit pre-curtain songs from the besuited, Chelsea-booted, four-piece band not only set the time and place — Brighton, 1963 — they key in the audience to the lighthearted spirit of the show. So much so that even the necessarily expository opening scene, introducing us to the awkward dilemma facing a bunch of escaped East End crooks, yields laughter.
No-gooder Stanley Subbers (Oliver Chris, as tall as a beanpole but with a smaller brain) has murdered Roscoe, the dodgy fiance of dimwit Pauline Clinch (Claire Lams), of whom her own father Charlie “The Duck” Clinch (Fred Ridgeway) remarks: “They’ve tried but they can’t make bricks thicker.”
But, to universal horror, Roscoe is alive. At least that’s what everyone thinks when confronted by his disguised twin sister Rachel (Jemima Rooper) who looks like Ringo Starr but with better timing. And who should s/he have in tow but Francis Henshall (Corden), her brand-new, impoverished minder who is a) a hapless chancer, b) rather taken with wiggling, pneumatic bookkeeper Dolly (gloriously pert Suzie Toase), and c) permanently ravenous.
Dispatched to look after business outside local pub The Cricketer’s Arms (a location filched from Graham Greene’s “Brighton Rock”), Henshall decides the fastest way to his next meal is to double his money by working in secret for a second boss who just happens to be the extremely posh Stanley. It’s only the second scene, but the moment Stanley looks in desperation around Mark Thompson’s deliciously faded seaside-town set for a name to use as a disguise and fixes on the ludicrous “Justin… Pubsign,” the audience is left near helpless with mirth.
Aided by physical theater expert and associate director Cal McCrystal, director Nicholas Hytner expertly harnesses that comedy energy to build a tight, towering succession of character shtick, sight gags, slapstick and chase sequences unseen since “Noises Off.” All of which prepares everyone for the play’s most famous scene.
Desperate to keep his masters apart, Henshall is forced to serve dinner to them separately but simultaneously. But Bean and Hytner go one better, adding in a new-to-the-job, 87-year-old deaf waiter with the shakes, played by Tom Fedden as a magnificently doddering disaster-zone replete with jaw-dropping comedy pratfalls.
The only reason Fedden doesn’t (quite) steal the show is Corden. As the heaviest of Hytner’s “The History Boys” he showed eye-catching brio, but his performance here is in a different league. His ceaseless connection with the audience — including with hapless individual theatergoers — is in the Dame Edna league, albeit with more endearing innocence.
Although the sheer comic delirium of the first act drops after intermission, it’s replaced by the enjoyment of the entire razor-sharp company’s split-second timing of Bean’s throwaway jokes, one-liners and elaborate running gags. That and the giddily old-fashioned delight of everything stopping so that, say, Corden and deadpan Chris can join the skiffle band to play xylophone and multiple car horns. It’s that kind of show.
Already booked for a U.K. tour, so long as Corden is available, a West End transfer is less a likelihood, more a dead cert.