Review: One Man, Two Guvnors by The National Theatre

I have wanted to see this show ever since it first began to create a buzz, and the perfect opportunity presented itself when it came to my local theatre, the Wycombe Swan, this week. I was, however, a little worried that my expectations were so high that the show would never live up to them.

The show is based on Carlo Goldini’s original 16th Century Commedia Dell’Arte masterpiece, A Servant of Two Masters, updated to Brighton in 1963, and incorporating a skiffle band to cover (fairly extensive) scene changes. The lead character, Francis, has been sacked from the band, providing the reason for its incorporation in the piece, as well as the motivation for him to seek sufficiently-paid employment elsewhere, hence the title.

The era of the setting works well, translating the original notions of arranged-marriage contracts into the more modern conventions of underworld gangsters who conspire in a marriage of convenience in order to cover-up the homosexuality of the bridegroom-to-be. The stock character of Pantalone stays pretty-much the same, but for a change of name to Charlie Clench, ably played by Norman Pace; the Doctor becomes a Lawyer, still prone to spouting Latin epithets; and the maidservant (Smeraldina in the original), who provides the love-interest for Francis, becomes the accountant to underworld boss Clench.

The storyline follows the original pretty rigorously, and the script, where it diverges, retains the spirit of the original, updating the comedy to work for a more modern and sophisticated audience. That’s not to say that the comedy is sophisticated, drawing heavily on traditions that now manifest in pantomime, but the humour is packed far more tightly, using everything from audience participation to stock jokes – a variation on ”Did Dad die?” being one of the more superb routines – to a slosh scene, with a fire extinguisher, forming the comedy centrepiece of a meal served to two sets of diners simultaneously, as it did in the original.

At this point, I have to draw attention to Michael Dylan (the same Michael Dylan who featured in Big Brother a year or so ago, which was great as I worried then that he would never work again) as Alfie, the octogenarian waiter with shaking hands and a pacemaker, whose physical comedy was among the best I have ever seen. Gavin Spokes as Francis, replacing James Cordon from the original NT cast, was superb in his rapport with the audience, and it was lovely to see him descend from the stage after the curtain call to personally thank two members of the audience whom he had dragged onstage in the first half to contribute, mainly at their own expense, to a hliarious scene involving moving a ‘heavy’ trunk. I don’t want to give too much away about the rest of the audience participation, so I will just say that it was superbly judged by Spokes, and brilliantly acted.

For the first few minutes, the verbal delivery seemed somewhat over-exaggerated, but this soon disappeared as one’s ear became attuned to the style of the piece, and the sets, similarly ‘cartoonish’, were superb, beautifully designed and of the highest quality manufacture. I have seen too many comedies which relied on ‘door business’ fail when the doors wobbled visibly, not to appreciate the solidity of these.

In short, the show was everything I expected and more. I really respect the National Theatre for giving weight to those forms of entertainment that have long been considered less ‘artistically-worthy’ than others, such as muscials and ‘lowbrow’ comedy, and the skill with which One Man, Two Guvnors was written, directed, designed and performed totally supports their choice. If anyone believed that the National and its productions were too highbrow for them, this play totally disproves it, reaching out to precisely that audience and, hopefully, bringing them into the fold. Whether you’re a regular theatre-goer, or just want a belly-laughing evening out, One Man, Two Guvnors is a fantastic choice and well worth the price of a ticket.

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