Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 18, 2012
One Man, Two Guvnors by Richard Bean. Based on The Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldoni. With songs by Grant Olding. Director - Nicholas Hytner. Physical Comedy Director - Cal McCrystal. Designer - Mark Thompson. Lighting Designer - Mark Henderson. Sound Designer - Paul Arditti. Cast: James Corden, with Oliver Chris, Jemima Rooper, Tom Edden, Martyn Ellis, Trevor Laird, Claire Lams, Fred Ridgeway, Daniel Rigby, Suzie Toase, Brian Gonzales, Eli James, Ben Livingston, Sarah Manton, Stephen Pilkington, David Ryan Smith, Natalie Smith, Jacob Colin Cohen, Austin Moorhead, Jason Rabinowitz, Charlie Rosen.
Sorry, folks, pardon me while I wash my hands after having to type that. But trying to convince “serious” theatregoers, who may not believe there's any intrinsic worth in a play designed only and entirely to make you laugh as much as possible, requires some sacrifices to sanity. Luckily, One Man, Two Guvnors does not: It's an exhilarating corrective to the non-musicals this season that, whatever their other virtues, haven't exactly seen gut-busting as both a means and an end. Maybe the description above is technically accurate — darn, I neglected to mention a detailed takedown of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher! — but with a show like this, one of the dizziest and fizziest to open on Broadway in many a month, legitimate meaning, and the quest for it, becomes the biggest triviality of them all.
As long as the show is done well, there's nothing wrong with that. And this one, which Nicholas Hytner has directed with a nimbleness he has never before demonstrated in his Broadway work is done very, very well. You can get into the intricacies of its background and construction, if you like: Bean freely adapted it from Carlo Goldoni's commedia dell'Arte classic, The Servant of Two Masters, updating the time and place to 1963 Brighton but changing very little else. It's not necessary. The almost complete original U.K. cast from the original National Theatre production, including the top-notch headliner James Corden (seen here six years ago in The History Boys), provide all the context you need to derive the most from every scene, word, and guffaw (of which there are, thankfully, too many to count).
That the evening is intended to be strictly a clutch-your-sides diversion is evident when you take your seat. A swank, shinily dressed four-man band, calling themselves The Craze, appears some 15 minutes before curtain time to strum, croon, and bounce through a selection of delightful mock-'60s across-the-pond pop well befitting the setting in which we're about to land. The quartet (Jason Rabinowitz, Austin Moorhead, Charlie Rosen, and Jacob Colin Cohen), clad in near-metallic red suits, look and sound like they're having them times of their lives before we get to have the time of ours, and establish the framework for an anything-goes variety show that justifies not just what we're about to see, but also its how and why.
So by the time the action starts, we're prepared. Charlie Clench (Fred Ridgeway) is holding the engagement party for his daughter, Pauline (Claire Lams), who's marrying aspiring actor Alan Dangle (Daniel Rigby). There's some nonsense afoot about Pauline having been engaged to Roscoe Crabbe, a homosexual, as part of a marriage of convenience, but he died and she's free to marry the man she truly loves — so what could possibly go wrong? Only the arrival of a strangely effeminate someone purporting to be Roscoe, insisting on getting back Pauline, and bringing along servant Francis (Corden) to help seal the deal. In the midst of completing an errand for Roscoe, Francis takes on a second job as helper to Stanley Stubbers (Oliver Chris), who's looking for his own disappeared girlfriend, Roscoe's sister Rachel (Jemima Rooper).
From then on it's pure bliss as paths and plots intertwine. Francis is forced to tell apart apparently identical envelopes given to him for one or another unspecified master, deliver increasingly confusing and confused messages, move a “heavy” trunk (with the help of two, perhaps semi-willing, audience members), and, in the elaborate set piece that brings the first act to a close, simultaneously serve both employers a gourmet dinner while also feeding his ravenous self and alerting neither to the other's presence. There's little here that Goldoni did not invent, or that doesn't hearken back to established commedia tradition, but Hytner has imposed clockwork precision and razor-honed pacing that keep you from feeling you're seeing anything remotely as ancient as you actually are.
The primary source of this freshness is, of course, Corden, who despite his above-average girth is as fleet and fetching as comedians come. Whether getting into a knock-down fight with himself, replete with tie pulling and face smashing; losing a battle against that trunk on its 20-foot journey; or going head-to-head with salads and fish during the banquet brouhaha, he never loses his crisp appeal, sense of whimsy, or think-on-his-feet smarts. (At the performance I attended, he lost a showdown with one of his food props, but won the war in how he handled his slippery-fingered aftermath.) It's difficult to say whether Corden is more adept with physical or verbal jokemaking, but he fills his myriad moments onstage so completely, it's pointless wasting your nearly nonexistent breathing time between gags trying to figure it out.
Mark Thompson's sets and costumes are uproarious in their skewed-perspective Technicolor outlooks, and just right for their rambunctious surroundings; Mark Henderson's lights adroitly complement them. If the show has a failing, it's that the second act never soars quite as high as the first: It spends so much time paying off earlier setups that it doesn't have time to distinguish itself as its own comic creation, and though it's still enjoyable, it's considerably less revelatory.
Maybe that's for the best — in every other area, One Man, Two Guvnors intelligently goes only as far as it must to keep you suffocating in hilarity, so keeping you from overdosing with the second act could well be the best way to keep word of mouth good. Besides, what new ground must it break? The show does so well polishing old fixtures to a blinding shine, you won't walk away from it missing anything. Including, by the way, social significance. Hytner, Corden, and his company are lively reminders that comedy, like theatre in general, is at its best only when it's taken absolutely seriously. And this comedy is as intense — and funny — as it gets.