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One Man Two Guvnors

National Theatre presents ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS – a new play by Richard Bean based on THE SERVANT OF TWO MASTERS by Carlo Goldoni with songs by Grant Olding, by arrangement with the Theatre Royal Haymarket Company, London.

I saw this production in London in early January, 2013.
I had also seen the broadcast of this production from the Lyttelton Theatre at the National at the Chauvel Cinema, Paddington, last year.
So, twice!! (Different casts).

ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS by Richard Bean is an adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s THE SERVANT OF TWO MASTERS which was a reworking of an old Commedia Dell’Arte scenario: i.e. “a scenario or running-order pinned up behind the stage, detailing entrances and exits of the players and the main points to be conveyed in the scenes ” – hence the other appellation for this kind of performance as Commedia all’Improviso – requested by an actor Antonio Sacchi, a famous Arlecchino (of the Commedia tradition), creating IL SERVITORE DI DUE PARDONI in 1746 – 24 years before the finding, by Europeans, of the Australian continent! “Goldoni tried to bring together two traditions of European theatre – the playwrights’ theatre, and commedia – the actor’s theatre”.

Richard Bean has created a new work based on the Goldoni original, setting it in the 1950’s early 1960’s London scene (the time of the Kray Brothers gang: The Firm) and giving a very British-Humour twist to the happenings – in a post-war “faltering of the class system and the burgeoning confidence of the common man.” In an essay on British Humour in the National Theatre program by Cal McCrystal, there is reference to the 29 CARRY ON film series: “Lightly smutty and camp … where the sexes are clearly defined. Men were randy or impotent. Women were sex objects or battle-axes.” Further, there is the connection made to the pantomime tradition of the British Christmas, a usual bolstering of box office takings for the theatres involved, rivalled by the popular success of farce “… with elements of disguise, slapstick and mistaken identity” with a definite penchant for enjoying cross-dressing – “…gender bending of this nature (being) a peculiarly British addiction – I, also, think Australian , as well – Hello Priscilla! – and then add the Music Hall tradition of stand up comedians interacting with the audience directly and with asides, to the audience. Mr Bean embraces it all full tilt, swallows and subsumes and regurgitates it, and produces a cocktail of farce of immense contemporary stature: ONE MAN,TWO GUVNORS.

ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS is an hilarious, fun farce. Beginning with the cartoonish set design and the over-the-top costume ‘campery’ by Mark Thompson, lit with the end-of-pier brightness, brilliantly, by Mark Henderson. Broadly and tightly directed by Nicholas Hytner, assisted by Cal McCrystal in the detail and expertise of the physical comedy, the routines are classic and beautifully tuned: unforgettable characters and business. Epitomised in this production in the food serving sections with Tom Edden (Alfie, the geriatric waiter) being the performance impossible to resist. Indeed all the physical and vocal character work, by the impeccable company, a work of joy to behold and wallow in: Daniel Ings as the would-be actor and suitor, Alan Dangle; Rhona Croker as doting and dotty bride-to-be, Pauline Clench; Jodie Prenger as the world wise secretary, Dolly – a brunette version of everyone’s favourite Barbara Windsor -oohhh! gorgeous; Gemma Whelan as the cross dressed gangster moll, Rachel Crabbe; and Ben Mansfield giving a stunningly funny ‘turn’ as the upper class twit, Stanley Stubbers.

Best of all is the man (the servant) Francis Henshall played deliriously, seemingly effortlessly by a truly great ‘clown’, Oswain Arthur. To be seen to be believed. To see Mr Arthur is to gasp at the luck to have the pleasure of seeing it live – no CGI here, just a kind of comic miracle. Funny, witty, charming, dexterous, with an electrifying sense of fine tuned timing to be envied by all. Comedy is the hardest thing for an actor to do and pull off. The control of technique needs to be so accurate, that, only if blessed by the ‘gods’ and rigorously trained, tempered with the craze of daring brinkmanship and temperament, i.e. Courage, does one dare take on farce of this kind. Exhausting but exhilarating and not to be missed.I have no memory of an Australian company so attuned, collectively for this kind of genre. Maybe the Acting Schools no longer engage with this kind of work?! – a tradition, sadly been lost.

ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS: The Craft of Comedy exemplified.

My one carp is the music interludes. The pre-show, the interval, perhaps the exit is OK – just – but otherwise a touch too tedious. Well done but BORING. If I want to see a musical I’ll go to one! It is the trend and growing trademark of the National Theatre’s treatment of the classics to create a mini-musical out of them/for them. SHE STOOPS TO CONQUER and the recent THE MAGISTRATE (both seen at the cinema) both laboured under the burden of the interpolation of musical invention. Put on the musical and let the classics stand on their own, I reckon.

ONE MAN TWO GUVNORS, then, worth catching.

P.S. It is great to see a work by Richard Bean, in Sydney, at last. Along with Simon Stephens (PUNK ROCK – 2009; THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT TIME – 2012), Mr Bean is one of the exciting contemporary British writers. Read ENGLAND PEOPLE VERY NICE (2009); THE HERETIC (2011) (seen at the Melbourne Theatre Company); HARVEST (2005) (seen at the Red Stitch Theatre Company, Melbourne). ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS (2011), is an object lesson for our adaptors creating ‘new versions’ of other people’s original works. This is no simple appropriation of another writer’s reputation. It is the modern standing on the shoulders of greatness. Both writers, Goldoni and Bean enhanced.