National Theatre Live at Home presents One Man, Two Guvnors (2011)

PSA: The amount of arts & culture that has become available online, in our homes, for free during this pandemic is glorious and frankly, overwhelming. (The pandemic is a horror, but let’s still recognize a boon when it occurs. And let’s please note the clear importance of the arts, and keep that lesson in mind ever after. Fund the arts! Support artists!) I am impressed and humbled and glad; also overwhelmed. But for me at least, the best thing to come along yet is this: National Theatre Live At Home. Every Thursday night for at least the next several weeks (and, I’d imagine, to continue beyond that), they’ll show one of their greatest productions on YouTube, free to stream until the following Thursday night. That means that the first free production, reviewed here, will stay available at this link until this Thursday night when we get a new one. Oh joy! Do take advantage. (And if you’re able, you might consider making a donation to support NT Live, too.)

One Man, Two Guvnors premiered at the National Theatre’s Lyttelton Theatre in 2011. The play is an adaptation of the commedia dell’arte Servant of Two Masters, resetting the plot in 1960s Brighton, England. It has many classic elements of comedic theatre, not to say Shakespeare: a woman disguises herself as her own twin brother (gender-bending); mistaken identities lead to heartbreak (love triangles and squares); abundant slapstick/physical humor; and the servant with two masters, which is reminiscent of the twin bosses and twin servants of The Comedy of Errors. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it all brings me back around to Shakespeare. There’s also an actor playing a character who wants to be an actor (and thereby making fun of actors), and I’m always tickled by meta-humor like that.

Quick plot run-down: Francis Henshall has taken on two jobs at once, gofer for both gangster Roscoe Crabbe and upper-crusty Stanley Stubbers, and he has to keep them both unawares. Except Roscoe is really Rachel disguised as her twin, who is dead, murdered by Rachel’s boyfriend, who is Stanley. Roscoe is gay, but engaged to the daughter of another criminal type, Mr. Duck, even though said daughter would rather marry a (terrible) aspiring actor. Francis attempts to court Mr. Duck’s bookkeeper, but his chief concern is food: the chubby “man with two guvnors” hasn’t eaten all day and he’s famished. Key scenes include the one in which he must act as waiter to both “Roscoe” and Mr. Duck (in one room) and Stanley (in the other). This one involves a geriatric waiter-in-training and Francis’s scheme to waylay as much food as possible for himself. There’s another in which Francis’s good and bad angels (if you will) get into an altercation, so that he flails and rolls around the stage, a one-man fistfight. The ending I’ll just say is also typical of Shakespeare.

While I’ll confess this play started off a little slowly for me, it soon had me laughing so hard I cried, and at one point snorted beer on a sleeping dog who was most displeased. The acting was excellent: James Corden deserves the accolades he’s received for the role of Francis, which he fully embodies. Musical acts between scenes add to the period feel, in the style of early Beatles (whom Francis claims to have assisted in their founding); the musicians are joined by various cast members.

It’s also worth nothing that, not without its problems, this play engages in the odd bit of racism and plenty of sexism and even a rape joke – that last I would take right out. We make certain allowances for period drama, but I don’t think there’s any excuse for rape jokes.

One of the most remarkable elements of this play is that the fourth wall is thoroughly broken down; actors look to the audience for effect and pause mid-dialogue for laughter, which only increases it. Most importantly, there are several points at which audience members are solicited for sandwiches or dragged onstage to participate in the action. One such participant, “Christine Patterson,” gets quite deeply involved, and winds up, well, the brunt of some physical humor herself, shall we say. (I’m quite sure she was a plant, but the others, I’m unclear.) This was perhaps the best and cleverest bit of the whole thing. It was the Christine sequence that had me snorting beer.

I had a massively fun time watching Corden’s antics and the quite silly but thoroughly amusing plot of One Man, Two Guvnors. And for free! Thoroughly recommended (although future productions will be just fine without the rape joke).


Rating: 8 soup tureens.

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