One Man, Two Guvnors is hilariously funny. I thought I would just come out and say it. For the last two years I’ve heard nothing but good things about it from friends, from professionals and from friends that are professionals. It seems like there isn’t enough praise for a show that, from what I could gather used pretty broad humour. In that time the role of Francis Henshall, originated by James Corden seems to have become a thing of legend, a modern day Hamlet and why, because One Man, Two Guvnors is hilariously funny.
The play is based on Carlo Goldoni’s “The Servant With Two Masters” (I’ve never seen it so that’s the last time it will be mentioned) and is the story of Roscoe Crabbe, a London gangster who apparently didn’t quite die when he was murdered. This causes much confusion with his murderer, his former fiancé, her new man and his lacky Francis Henshall. To make matters worse Henshall has taken on a second “guvnor”, who just so happens to be Roscoe’s killer.
It’s British farce at its best, full of slapstick humour, mistaken identity and cross dressing. The seaside humour comes so thick and fast that the Brighton setting (beautiful realised in Mark Thompson’s set) is a given. But if this sounds like something you’ve seen before, don’t worry, the play knows this, with its cast and script going the extra mile to deliver something that feels both original and refreshingly familiar.
Owain Arthur as Francis Henshall leads the production with a breathless energy. He somehow manages to keep the proceedings moving forward amid chaos from both the cast and the audience. In fact the strength of his performance is most visible during two extended pieces of audience participation. I usually cringe through this sort of thing but he keeps it funny and relevant to the story.
Special mention also has to be given to Peter Caufield as Alfie the Butler, who gives an impressive physical performance, which I won’t spoil here.
It’s the slapstick humour where the show’s strength truly lies, an art form that has been lost in a world desensitised by violence. Here it’s delivered with spot on pace and precision, always with an element of surprise. Scenes manage to build without getting stale, knowing exactly when the audience is ready to move on and immediately changing direction, but never the way you think.
Scene changes marked by various Skiffle performances by the band the Craze, joined in the second act by various cast members, give it a Royal Variety Show appeal (I told you this was very British). Though the songs were great, contrasting chipper melodies with darker lyrics (I especially like one about getting away with murder), as a fan of plays like Noises Off I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like if it just ran straight through, especially considering the length of the show.
The show has a couple of problems but they’re few and far between. The opening scenes, burdened with having to set up the situation, try and inject humour in any way possible, making them a bit hit and miss. Also, the times when characters break the fourth wall, though very traditional, did feel a little patronising, and also a little forced.
This aside, there’s something here for everyone, every type of humour, whether it’s physical or observational, you’d be hard pushed not to at least crack a smile. I didn’t have to ask my companion whether she enjoyed it, as that was pretty obvious, as it was with the rest of the audience. It’s not hard to see why this show has run and run, it’s big, it’s broad, it’s British and as winter approaches it couldn’t be more perfect.
Review by Max Sycamore @pheatreland
Friday 11th October 2013