“One Man, Two Guvnors” at the National Theatre

Richard Bean’s adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s commedia dell’arte play, One Man, Two Guvnors, is a story of lovers, disguise and an overworked servant, set in 1960s Brighton. The decade is a great excuse for a nostalgic design, rock ’n’ roll songs, and plenty of saucy jokes that some sensitive souls might frown at. And the seaside is an appropriate location for the silly stuff we see on stage – it’s picture postcard time at the National Theatre, with plenty of slap and tickle to enjoy.

The humour couldn’t be less sophisticated, and the gags as old as they come (“men will do anything to get you into bed. Lie, cheat, buy you a bed”). We are offered some theory as an excuse. Commedia dell’arte deals with stock characters and director Nicholas Hynter makes sure his cast delivers the broadest of performances. None of this stops the play from being funny – predictability is part of the joke, but it does make delivery the most important thing. Here, One Man, Two Guvnors does very well indeed.

The lovers we encounter include Pauline Clench (Claire Lams) and her RADA-trained fiancé Alan Dangle (Daniel Rigby) whose postured emoting gets more laughs than his lines. Their marriage is endangered by Rachel Crabbe (the excellent Jemima Rooper) disguised as her brother, who has been killed by her lover Stanley Stubbers, played effortlessly by Oliver Chris, the nice-but-dim public school boy who, taking inspiration from the street, disguises himself as Dustin Pubsign. His is the star turn of the night.

Chris steals the show, which might surprise some, since One Man, Two Guvnors seems rather unashamedly designed as a vehicle for James Corden. As the servant who takes on two jobs, he rarely leaves the stage and his energy is fantastic. The physical comedy poses no problems for Corden and he deals playfully with his colleagues, especially his own love interest Dolly (sassily portrayed by Suzie Toase), but his character is supposed to be more hapless than devious and – whisper it – Corden doesn’t possess quite enough charm to hold the role.

And yet Corden’s star appeal overpowers any deficiencies in his performance. His confidence is enough to entertain and he’s undoubtedly a crowd pleaser. If audience participation strikes you as a little tawdry, then stay away. But, as they say on the X Factor, the audience is the judge, and the level of near hysteria following Corden’s every move makes for an electric atmosphere.

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 26 May 2011 for The London Magazine

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