There are things happening at the National Theatre that I wouldn’t have expected to see at the National Theatre. The sight of recent BAFTA-winner Daniel Rigby rhythmically slapping his chest to music is one of them.
Others include Oliver Chris playing old-fashioned car horns, James Corden having a conversation with an audience member about a sandwich, and the contribution to proceedings made by certain theatregoers in the front row.
What all this adds up to is an overwhelming sense of fun. Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors is unashamedly entertaining, the sort of play whose raison d’etre is to make people laugh.
Based on Goldoni’s 18th century comedy The Servant Of Two Masters, Bean’s updated version sets the action in Brighton in 1963, where Francis Henshall (Corden), a food-loving busker, ends up becoming minder to two separate ‘guvnors’ solely that his two pay packets can fund his mighty appetite. While Henshall spends his time trying to stop each employer from finding out about the other and getting confused over their various commands, the guvnors in question have problems of their own, mainly involving murder and money.
The result is a show with all the classic elements of farce – mix-ups, door-slamming, slapstick fist fights – coupled with a script in which the one-liners come so thick and fast it’s verging on exhausting. Throw in some commedia dell’arte-style improvisation, an eyebrow-raising piece of audience participation – or is it? – plus a four-piece band which tops and tails scenes with songs that channel Buddy Holly, and you have a highly stylised, unique piece of theatre that is a real experience to watch.
The cast laps it up. Corden, whose name was attached to this play from the off, is perfect as Henshall. Displaying a gift for physical comedy and improvisation, he dashes about Mark Thompson’s cartoonish set trying to keep his increasingly farcical life from imploding, while all the time retaining that look in his eyes that says “I can’t stop thinking about chips”.
But despite the title, this is not a one man show. Corden plays off impeccable co-stars including Suzie Toase as his feisty love interest Dolly, Rigby as Alan Dangle, a melodramatic, existentialist wannabe actor who wants to marry Claire Lams’s nice-but-dim Pauline, and Tom Edden in what looks like the physically painful role of doddery waiter Alfie. As for the two guvnors, Jemima Rooper toughens up nicely as Rachel Crabbe, disguised as her diminutive thug of a brother Roscoe, while Chris is hilarious as dangerously gung-ho public school toff Stanley Stubbers, who has a great clutch of Bean’s one-liners to deliver.
As for Bean, for the most part the playwright stays away from the type of jokes that provoked controversy on his previous National outing, England People Very Nice. One Man, Two Guvnors is not aiming to provoke or antagonise, or even ask any big questions. It aims to entertain, and that it does with considerable panache.