I must admit, when I first heard that Carlo Goldoni's The Servant of Two Masters
had been renamed One Man, Two Guvnors
in Richard Bean's new version, I wasn't optimistic (and I still don't like the new title although I can't quite put my finger on why; there's just something fakely geezerish about it that puts me off.) James Corden as the titular one man was another worry, and although I haven't read any of the reviews (I'll have to do so tomorrow) the official ones have been heaping praise and stars on the production, while the online theatregoing community seems to have hated it. So clearly a show that's inspiring extreme reactions one way or the other.
Relocated to 1963 Brighton, the play sees Francis (Corden) end up doing jobs for two different gangsters: A young woman (Jemima Rooper) impersonating her own dead twin brother; and her fiancé (Oliver Chris) a former public schoolboy who killed said brother. Unaware that they're not only staying in the same pub but also sharing a henchman, it's a classic setup for farce. As I said last year when he appeared on Doctor Who
, he might come across as obnoxious himself but as an actor Corden is very likeable. Nicholas Hytner's production takes asides to the audience to the extreme, blurring the lines between Corden and the character he's playing, so as a result he's not at his most offputting but neither is he at his most endearing, some of the self-satisfaction that caused a backlash against the actor coming through here as well. If the lead is a mixed bag, the other two central roles have gone to a couple of my favourite actors, and Rooper and Chris don't disappoint, she pretending to be a tiny, gay psycho, he blurting out bizarre, posh non-sequiturs and increasingly revealing a kinky side born out of boarding school. Recent BAFTA-winner Daniel Rigby is another highlight as a wannabe Shakespearean actor and although the pace (especially after the interval) isn't quite as fast as it ought to be the whole thing's a lot of fun. A live band that includes composer Grant Olding play his songs before the show and during scene changes, and the actors occasionally join them to play their own choice of instrument - Corden a xylophone, Chris a set of car horns and, most memorably, Rigby slapping his own bare chest.
I laughed a lot as did both my theatre companions and I would recommend it as a funny night out but with some reservations. If farce isn't your thing this really
won't be - the performances aren't so much broad as making the Carry On
films look understated. While the farce itself should always be highly orchestrated chaos, the frequent breaking of the fourth wall and apparent slip-ups in the production feel rather too deliberate as well - there's a mix of real audience participation (don't sit in the front row) and plants, and you end up distracted by wondering how much of it is genuine. Does the pacemaker fall off every night? (We reckon so.) Does Corden always get heckled with an offer of sushi? (Our jury was out on this one.) And while Bean's script is very funny in places, there is an over-reliance on running jokes: The one about Australians and opera is good, but the one about boy/girl "identical" twins is laboured from the start and then gets dragged out even further. Overall I'm leaning much more towards the people who loved the show than those who hated it, and all three of us laughed loads - vanessaw
especially thought she wouldn't be able to stop, on two separate occasions. But the comedy's not seamless, at times the production is rather too eager to please.One Man, Two Guvnors
by Richard Bean, based on The Servant of Two Masters
by Carlo Goldoni is in repertory until the 26th of July at the National Theatre's Lyttelton.