An amusing farce by Richard Bean, One Man Two Guvnors is based on the 18th century commedia dell’arte Servant of Two Masters, but this time transposed to 1963 Brighton. It’s the day of Roscoe’s engagement party, but he’s dead, and his intended Pauline has fallen for melodramatic actor Alan in his place. So as “not to waste the sandwiches”, Pauline’s dad, Charlie the Duck, is throwing the party for them instead.
The trouble is, “Roscoe” returns, with his minder Francis Henshall (James Corden), and after a shaky first fifteen-minutes, which plays like any other gangster cliche of the period, Francis finds himself with two employers. Knock-about comedy, audience participation, classic farce, overblown acting, and bad puns ensue.
Nicholas Hytner’s production was not only one of the National Theatre’s biggest successes (transferring into the West End and to Broadway), but also a very popular entry in NT Live: therefore it is no surprise that the NT have chosen to use this recording to kick off their YouTube series of National Theatre At Home. Each show is made available, for free (or you may donate if you wish), for a week. Recorded live, the production values are very high, with the equivalent of a view from the best seats in the house (although the camera dictates what you see, and when).
Jemima Rooper is in sparking “Viola of Twelfth Night” breeches disguise as her thuggish twin Roscoe (and as herself, Rachel, who loves the man who killed him), while Oliver Chris is delightfully foppish as the upper-class twit with a dubious moral compass. They become the “two guvnors” running Francis ragged, and the main brunt and cause of his hysterical physical exertions. Daniel Rigby does well as Alan (“he might go all Hamlet”), declaiming lines of flowery prose for every situation.
Although this is undoubtedly Corden’s show (I’m not usually a fan, but the role of the flustered and overweight buffoon who goes seeking a sandwich or gets involved in pratfalls and stage fights suits him perfectly. One Man Two Guvnors has moments which don’t quite work (jokes about paedophilia feel misjudged), but largely the inevitable variations on the banana peel or custard pie gags keep the pace moving.
Musical interludes (by Grant Olding) faciliate scene changes, and are accomplished enough in their own right to justify the reputation of this show. It all adds up to a fine evening’s entertainment – although it took me a while to get used to Bean’s writing style, which is far riper than the source material’s translation, and the pacing.
One Man Two Guvnors is available on the National Theatre’s YouTube channel until 9 April, when it will be replaced by Jane Eyre. The images on this post are by Johan Persson.