Thursday, 22 December 2011

One Man, Two Guvnors ****

It’s been a busy year for Richard Bean, with The Heretic doing well at the Royal Court and One Man, Two Guv’nors exploring the rich vein of entertainment in the Commedia dell’Arte and building on the work of Goldoni before him and his The Servant of Two Masters, originally written in 1746. The result is a blend of rehearsed gags and improvisation, physical comedy and witty banter that will reduce you to tears of interminable joy.
The script itself is remarkably basic. The jokes are obvious and simplistic, leaving plenty of room for the physical comedy and improvisation that make the show what it is. It takes a while for the ball to begin rolling, as the heavy strokes offered by the script don’t allow for much engagement from the audience. It’s when Corden enters that the fireworks begin and the action comes to life on stage. The script works as little more than a stage on which this action is set. There are a few recurring jokes but by and large the script isn’t at the forefront. I think if it was the show would not be as free and hilarious as it is.
Hynter’s touch is delicate but vital. Taking the simple script and crafting a simple set that works with the concept of the play itself and giving the actors a platform on which to excel he creates the opportunity for the brilliance that follows. The ensemble and supporting cast are set up and provide less in the way of plot development and characterisation than something for the leads to bounce off and it pays dividends.
It would be remiss of me to not mention the talents of The Craze, the band that plays the show in and out of acts and scene changes. They add a further dimension of audience engagement that is delightful and unique, once again making the show something special. They have a subtle blend of talent and poise as well as a small dash of humour to them as well and playing to a crowd like that must be a great amount of fun.
Special mention in the cast must go to Oliver Chris, Jemima Rooper and Daniel Rigby. All members of the cast are given a moment or two to shine and all take it with aplomb but these three crafted more for themselves and garnered a joyous expectation every time they made an appearance on the stage as the inevitable conclusion drew ever closer. I was a particular fan of Oliver Chris’ work in creating the upper class boarding school fop stereotype so hilarious.
Despite all this, it is James Corden is what makes the show what it is. His banter and improvisation with the audience is beyond what is offered by the basic script and at times it feels more like The James Corden Show than anything else, not that this is a bad thing. He takes the Commedia dell’Arte and explodes it onto the stage almost single-handedly and does so hilariously. Often addressing the audience as himself, as his character, as someone else entirely, he involves the audience in a way that is seldom seen. He deals with the physical comedy brilliantly, Hynter playing a part as well, no doubt, in playing a lot of the gags. He excels in the role and it’s his banter that makes him a unique talent. Bloody brilliant.

On the evening I went to see the show, a member of the audience managed to destroy the middle of the first half by offering Corden the sandwich he was shouting for. In what I hope will become known as the Infamous Houmous Sandwich Incident (sounds like an episode of The Goon Show) Corden has to deal with what little plot the play has being turned completely on its head. That’s what happens when you break the fourth wall like that. Corden, to his credit, completely broke character and engaged with the audience on this point for what must have been almost ten minutes, even saying at one point ‘this guy’s only got three lines in the whole play and you’ve just ruined two of them!’ I will never forget seeing someone on a West End stage look at a member of the audience and with genuine if comedic sincerity tell them that they've 'kind of interfered with the plot of the play'. Brilliance at work.

This is the only play in which this made the action better than it would have otherwise been. Later, Oliver Chris misses an important entrance, once more prompting Corden to break character and have a comedic stab at him. The final scene wasn’t free from this, either, with Chris utterly corpsing (I was at the very back of the stalls and even I could see it) and causing Corden to break again. In any other show this would be disastrous. Here it is worked in as brilliance and a wonderful showcase for Corden’s quick-witted comedy.
It is these moments that make the show special and offer the West End something that it won’t have found anywhere else. It makes it different to the point of being unmissable and lovers of this kind of hilarity will feel blessed to have both this and Noises Off playing at the same time. The dynamic between Corden and the character he plays, often simultaneously, is endlessly funny. It’s just funny.
After this most recent transfer, the play is set to split into non-identical twins from the same single form when James Corden takes it to Broadway while the current understudy for his role, Owain Arthur, takes over the lead reigns for the transfer to the Theatre Royal Haymarket in March. Being unfamiliar with Arthur’s work thus far I’d be challenged to recommend it with him in the lead role, though I’m sure it will be a good show. The current version, however, is made what it is by Corden and I’m very excited to see how the show does with him on Broadway. If you can find a ticket going before it splits then take it with open arms.

Written by Richard Bean; Directed by Nicholas Hynter; At the Adelphi Theatre; Starring James Corden, Suzie Toase, Trevor Laird, Fred Ridgeway, Claire Lams, Martyn Ellis, Daniel Rigby, Jemima Rooper, Oliver Chris, David Benson, Tom Edden; Runs from 8 November 11 - 25 February 2012.

John Ord (21/12/2011)


  1. Though it is played brilliantly, the sandwich sketch happens in every show

    1. What about the chocolate bar thrown onto the stage from the upper dress circle?