'One Man, Two Guvnors': Theater Review

One Man, Two Guvnors James Corden - P 2012
Joan Marcus, 2012

One Man, Two Guvnors James Corden - P 2012

On a laughs-per-minute basis, this rollicking London import gives 'The Book of Mormon' a run for its funny.

James Corden stars in Richard Bean's riotous reinvention of the commedia dell'arte classic, 'The Servant of Two Masters,' which transfers to Broadway in Nicholas Hytner's smash-hit London production.

Few theatergoing experiences are as joyously liberating as being part of a packed house roaring with laughter at low comedy. That shouldn’t imply any lack of genuine wit in the broad farce and bawdy humor of One Man, Two Guvnors, Richard Bean’s gut-busting update of the Carlo Goldoni commedia dell’arte nugget, The Servant of Two Masters. Striking an ingenious balance between meticulous planning and what plays like anarchic spontaneity, Nicholas Hytner’s production has been a deserved success in London. With virtuoso ringmaster James Corden on hand to juggle the demands of dual employment while wrapping the audience around his pudgy finger, the show now looks set to slay Broadway, too.

Bean cleverly transports Goldoni’s action from 18th century Venice to the tacky and tranquil seaside locale of Brighton, 1963, using a live skiffle band to set the scene. Amusing original songs by Grant Olding suggest the legacy of British music hall, and cast members take part during scene changes in variety-act interludes, providing accompaniment on xylophone, kettle drums, claxons and, in one actor’s case, by rhythmically slapping his bare torso.

Despite the Anglicized presentation – which also draws on the saucy comedy of the Carry On movies; the farcical buffoonery of popular Brit TV, from The Benny Hill Show to Fawlty Towers; and the cozy audience rapport of Frankie Howerd – the loose plot manages to stay faithful to the original.

The Harlequin figure, Truffaldino, is Corden’s portly Francis Henshall, stuffed by designer Mark Thompson into too-tight plaids with peek-a-boo Argyle socks. Gofer to a shady character from London’s East End, Francis is perpetually hungry and driven by his insatiable appetite to moonlight for a second guvnor.

His original employer, Roscoe Crabbe, has been murdered. But the deceased’s twin sister, Rachel (Jemima Rooper), is impersonating her late brother in order to collect payment from his fiancée’s father, a Brighton underworld figure named Charlie “the Duck” Clench (Fred Ridgeway). As part payment of a debt, Charlie had promised his thick-as-a-brick daughter Pauline (Claire Lams) in marriage as a beard for gay Roscoe. But in the two days since Roscoe’s death, Pauline has already become engaged to her true love, windy aspiring thespian Alan Dangle (Daniel Rigby). Things get more complicated with the arrival of Rachel’s beloved, Stanley Stubbers (Oliver Chris), the well-bred twit who killed Roscoe. He hires Francis as his right-hand man while lying low in Brighton.

Regularly breaking the fourth wall with an infectious sense of wink-wink mischief, the brilliant Corden orchestrates the escalating chaos in cahoots with the audience. Unaware of their connection, Francis struggles to keep his two guvnors ignorant of one another. That challenge peaks when he is required to serve them both dinner in adjacent rooms of a pub, while satisfying his own ravenous hunger. To give away details would diminish the enjoyment. But with help from an 87-year-old waiter (Tom Edden) with a dodgy pacemaker and a bad case of the tremors, this extended set-piece at the end of the first act – full of spit-takes, pratfalls and other hoary bits of stage business – ranks among the most criminally funny theater I’ve ever seen. In addition to Hytner, kudos goes to physical comedy director Cal McCrystal for some riotous stunts.

It’s as much Goldoni’s fault as Bean’s that Act II never quite scales those same heights, but that impossibility is wryly acknowledged when Francis discusses his motivation with the audience. While true identities are revealed and misunderstandings sorted, Francis transfers his desire from food to love in the form of Charlie’s shapely bookkeeper, Dolly. A walking sexual innuendo, Suzie Toase channels Carry On queen Barbara Windsor with a dash of Mad Men’s Joan Holloway as the buxom redhead, her every line accompanied by a teasing look and a come-hither twitch of her shoulder or hip.

The characters all correspond to their specific commedia types while at the same time evoking the unmistakable feel of early ‘60s England. The knowing nudges to 21st century audiences – such as proto-feminist Dolly gazing into a future where a woman will be running the country and completely botching her prediction of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain – are employed in moderation, avoiding the usual smug hindsight humor of this kind of meta-comedy.

A veteran of Hytner’s stage and film versions of The History Boys who will be familiar to BBC America viewers of Gavin & Stacy, Corden provides the production with a lovable linchpin. Francis might spiral into maximum confusion but the actor maintains unerring control, swiftly following every mocking glance or remark with a conspiratorial smile. He’s a supreme jester.

Corden has flawless backup down the line from a razor-sharp ensemble. Rooper plays the cross-dressing Rachel as a crude ruffian (“I smell like a doctor’s finger”) with the soul of a romantic. Chris nails Stanley’s ridiculously posh boarding-school airs in one ludicrous exclamation after another (“Soggy biscuit!”). Rigby milks every laugh out of the posturing would-be classicist who chose his stage name because “there’s a bloody revolution in the theatre and angry young men are writing plays about Alans.” Lams makes Pauline a priceless dolt, and as her dad, Ridgeway is an endearing geezer nursing a broken heart since his wife ran away. “Love passes through marriage quicker than shit through a small dog,” he says wistfully.

From the period-perfect costumes to the exaggerated sets – interiors at the Cricketers Arms pub are hilariously literal – Thompson’s designs are a delight. But Hytner’s masterstroke is the music, which wraps all this lunacy into an irresistible package. Punning on the notorious East End underworld figures of the time, the Kray twins, the quartet is dubbed The Craze. They start with a bouncy pre-show skiffle set and then segue during intermission into spot-on early-Fab Four pastiche, with droll novelty numbers punctuating the action throughout.

If you’re not having a good time at this show, you may be on the wrong medication.

Venue: The Music Box, New York
Cast: James Corden, Oliver Chris, Jemima Rooper, Tom Edden, Martyn Ellis, Trevor Laird, Claire Lams, Fred Ridgeway, Daniel Rigby, Suzie Toase, Eli James, Ben Livingston, Sarah Manton, Stephen Pilkington, David Ryan Smith, Natalie Smith, Jacob Colin Cohen, Austin Moorhead, Jason Rabinowitz, Charlie Rosen
Playwright: Richard Bean, based on
The Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldoni
Director: Richard Bean
Physical comedy director: Cal McCrystal
Songs: Grant Olding
Set and costume designer: Mark Thompson
Lighting designer: Mark Henderson
Sound designer: Paul Arditti
Presented by Bob Boyett, National Theatre of Great Britain, National Angels, Chris Harper, Tim Levy, Scott Rudin, Roger Berlind, Harriet Newman Leve, Stephanie P. McClelland, Broadway Across America, Daryl Roth, Jam Theatricals, Sonia Friedman, Harris Karma Productions, Deborah Taylor, Richard Willis