One Man, Two Guvnors
nytheatre.com review by Michael Mraz
April 21, 2012
“I know exactly what he’s after. And if he carries on like this, he’s going to get it,” says Dolly, a character in Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors, which opened this week at Broadway’s Music Box Theatre after a successful run at London’s National Theatre. Dolly is talking about our main character, a man who bites off more than he can chew by accepting jobs as an assistant to two different employers—but she could very well be talking about the show itself. One Man, Two Guvnors is straightforward in its goal: to keep the audience in stitches, applying every comedic device, not only from the two forms it pays homage to—British farce and commedia dell’arte—but seemingly every trick created since the beginning of time. And it carries on, at a rip-roaring pace, performed with such skill and precision, that it gets what it wants and then some.
One Man, Two Guvnors, set in Brighton, England in the ‘60s, centers around the misadventures of Francis Henshall, a down-on-his luck guy who just wants some lunch and a woman. He ends up in the employ of two people who, as luck would have it, have a little more than passing connection. Rachel Crabbe is posing as her dead brother, who was set to marry his prison-mate’s daughter for a sizable sum of money. Stanley Stubbers is Rachel’s lover, on the run, because he accidentally murdered her brother. In a twist of fate, they both end up in Brighton, unbeknownst to each other; and they both end up with the earnest, yet easily muddled Francis as their assistant. Francis, who doesn’t want his two “guvnors” to find out about the other, labors to keep their affairs separate, but he of course gets a bit “confused” from time to time, and, to the audience’s glee, hilarity ensues. His blunders and his close calls while constantly keeping his two bosses away from each other are all old, time-tested jokes and gags but they’re so well-played that it never matters.
James Corden, as Francis, is absolutely spectacular. He manages to weave a cunning intelligence and joyous mischief into his bumbling. He has the audience in the palm of his hand from the first moment he’s on stage, which is good because he interacts with them early and often. He manages to excel both in the looser, improvisational moments when he calls on the audience to “help” him out a bit and in the pin-point timing of the precise comic bits and wordplay; working in and out of each style with smoothness and ease.
The rest of the cast works perfectly with the very physical commedia style, paying fantastic homage to Bean’s source material (an 18th century Italian play, The Servant of Two Masters). They fully commit to every bit, never giving too little, most notably Tom Edden’s hilarious physical bits as Alfie, a shaky, lumbering 87-year-old waiter who falls and gets knocked about for the entirety of his stage time; Daniel Rigby, perfectly overwrought as the stereotypical actor, Alan, who has sworn to fight for the honor of his lady love who has been taken from him; and Oliver Chris as Stanley Stubbers, who manages to deliver the perfect button line to every gag or bit. Even the house musicians, the Craze, a four-piece skiffle band, add the perfect bit of energy and fun between scenes (as well as before the show and intermission), as well as helping to define the time period.
The show is taut and detailed. Mark Thompson’s scenic design is grounded, yet has a bright, almost psychedelic color scheme, when teamed with the musical interludes pulls the audience immediately into the setting. Nicholas Hytner’s direction is pitch-perfect, moving at a lightning quick pace, never leaving a moment of dead-air on stage—which is as essential as it is impressive, considering the 2 hour, 30 minute runtime. Bean’s script is a dedicated, well-mapped love-letter to the genre and never lets up. If I could complain about anything, the show hits such a fever-pitch by the act break that the second act never quite matches the first, but it’s difficult to be that spot-on for 150 minutes (this shouldn’t diminish the fact that the second act is really quite funny, regardless).
One Man, Two Guvnors really doesn’t break any new ground in comedy or theatre, but it doesn’t have to because it’s so perfect at what it does. I don’t think I stopped beaming from beginning to end, and belly-laughed more than I have in the past month. And during a time when it’s sometime tough to find the bright spots in a city as stressful as New York can be, two and a half hours of pure fun is a beautiful thing.