by Carol Rocamora
Whoever coined the phrase “Laughter is the best medicine” must have meant it for One Man Two Guvnors, Richard Bean’s riotous adaptation of Goldoni’s A Servant of Two Masters. Thank you, theatre angels, for streaming this gem on PBS to lift our spirits and split our sides during these intolerably tense times.
When I saw it at the Royal National Theatre in 2011, I marveled at Bean’s job of updating a 1623 Italian farce, relocating it to the seaside town of Brighton (of all places) circa 1963, and populating it with universal stock comedic types. It’s a celebration of farce at its finest, starring the fabulous James Corden as the eponymous servant and directed to perfection by Nicholas Hytner. (The production transferred to the West End, and then to Broadway).
Classical farce plots are typically complex, and this one is almost too convoluted to follow. Moreover, the British cultural references may be unfamiliar – but don’t worry, you’ll be laughing so hard at the comedic escapades that it won’t matter. Basically, the story goes something like this: an unemployed musician named Francis Henshaw (the divine comic Corden) finds himself working for two employers – a toffee-nosed upper class twit named Stanley Stubbers (Oliver Chris) and a young mobster named Roscoe Krabbe (Jemima Rooper). (The fact that Roscoe is dead, and Francis is actually serving Roscoe’s sister Rachel in disguise is only the beginning of the complications.) Francis’s two bosses end up staying at the same pub in Brighton, where he has to serve them both lunch simultaneously, in the funniest scene I’ve EVER seen onstage.
There’s lots more going on (for example, Rachel turns out to be in love with Stanley, who thinks she’s dead), but never mind, let’s go straight to the gold – the farcical elements of this marvelous work. The glory lies in the raucous physical comedy. James Corden treats us to a vaudevillian one-man show, featuring his roly-poly physique and expressive baby face. He’s like a shmoo that keeps on getting knocked down again and again – by his bosses and anyone else from the stellar cast who happens to pass by. He mugs, he “shticks,” he rolls around on the floor, he even stages a fight with himself, dramatizing the split personality of the servant of two masters.
And that’s just for starters. Hytner offers us two-and-half-hours of non-stop entertainment, punctuated by a sensational 60s-style skiffle band called The Craze (guitars, banjo, base, percussions, washboard) playing Grant Olding’s delightful original music during the scene changes. (The actors join in the fun too, playing horns and xylophone).
The highlights of the show feature hilarious audience involvement, masterfully initiated by Corden himself. One of the funniest running gags is Francis’s insatiable appetite (he even eats a letter he’s fetched from the post office.) At one point, he asks the audience if anyone has a sandwich (someone offers hummus, not Cordon’s favorite, resulting in another memorable “bit”). At another moment, Francis invites two audience members up onto the stage to help him move one of his bosses’s trunks. Then there’s the innocent lady in the front row whom Corden calls up to help him steal food off the plates of his bosses (predictably, she ends up doused with water and sprayed with whipped cream. After all, it’s farce.)
The latter stunt occurs during the priceless lunch scene, starring the amazing Tom Edden as Alfie, an 87-year-old waiter (it’s his first day on the job). Watching Alfie carrying a dish of hot soup across the stage, or getting smashed by a door, or falling down the stairs, is witnessing physical farce at its finest (Edden, by the way, was only 33 years old when he played the role and won a Tony Award (well-deserved for the physical abuse he suffered onstage.)
Since it’s farce, there are also running jokes and gags – like the repeated reference to Australia and opera, and the fact that identical twins can’t be of opposite sexes (really?).
Meanwhile, I’m running out of space as well as raves – and I haven’t even mentioned the other fine performances, including Suzie Toase as Francis’s love interest and Daniel Rigby as an aspiring actor (don’t ask me how they factor into the plot – it would take another review!) .
Anyway, I’m going back to my TV to watch One Man Two Govnors for the fifth time. Long live farce!
One Man Two Guvnors, Richard Bean’s adaptation of Goldoni’s A Servant of Two Masters, directed by Nicholas Hytner, streaming on PBS thru December 4.