The National Theatre has been at the vanguard of community outreach for a long time, and while some of its scheduling choices have come under fire in recent years and its London-centric approach criticised – and any national institution should rightly and publicly be held to account – the temporary creation of National Theatre at Home is a savvy, meaningful and entirely welcome contribution to the development of a remote community at a time of crisis.
There is a lot of theatre available to stream, many companies are generously making vintage shows available for short periods but with all its PR resources the National Theatre is creating a lockdown event, encouraging viewers to sit down at 7pm every Thursday to watch one of its archive productions as it first airs. Alone together last week around 200,000 people did just that, rising to almost a million by lunchtime on Friday – and potentially far more if multiple people are gathered round the screen.
The first show in the National Theatre at Home programme was the 2011 smash-hit One Man, Two Guvnors, one of the great success stories of the Nicholas Hytner era, a cheeky farce written by Richard Bean and starring National Theatre favourites James Corden and Oliver Chris. On its initial release, the show enjoyed a run in the Lyttleton before a West End transfer which ran for three years, a Broadway run and three UK tours, plus an international production that went to Hong Kong and Australia.
As one of the National Theatre’s most successful and much-loved shows, One Man, Two Guvnors is a superb choice to lift a nation’s spirits, and even watching alone knowing that hundreds of thousands of others were doing the same felt significant. And it’s the first time we’ve all really laughed in weeks. If you’ve never seen it before, then you are in for a treat.
Set in 1960s Brighton, Bean’s play with music is as superb an example of brilliantly plotted and executed farce as you will ever see. Something that looks this light and effortlessly silly on the surface is incredibly sophisticated and technical to create. The mixture of wordplay and physical humour is complicated and there are moments when jokes come at a quickfire pace or when one piece of slapstick leads to another and then another in a rolling effect that requires everyone to be exactly in the right place without making any of it feel contrived or overly rehearsed which this production achieved with astonishing precision while retaining the freshness of each comic scenario.
The plot is classic farce, utlising mistaken identity, twins and disguises to ingenious effect while three sets of apparently unrelated characters create havoc for lead Francis Henshall who is pulled in various directions when he ends-up working for two bosses at the same time. But while Bean employs a lot of the techniques of the genre, he uses them in unexpected ways and often what seem like obvious set-ups such as money given to the wrong employer or the physical consumption of a crucial letter which should result in eventual confrontation and exposure for Francis, are used almost like red herrings, resolved (or forgotten) quickly with little consequence. The result is to keep the audience on their toes, diverting us away from the lazy cliche which may cause our attention to wander and instead using the comedy set-up to unexpected effect.
The great set-piece of One Man, Two Guvnors comes at the end of Act One as inside The Cricketers pub where both Guvnors Stanley Stubbings and Roscoe Crabbe are staying, the hungry Francis is required to serve them both a multi-course lunch with the help of a decrepit and unsteady waiter on his first day in the job (think Victoria Wood “Two Soups” sketch). With room mix-ups, food arrivals being dashed between the diners while being siphoned off by Francis for himself, some terrified audience participation and plenty of examples of the waiter being hit by doors and falling down the stairs, this scene is a comic delight and absolute nothing to do with the plot. It’s a clever choice by Bean, deciding to include a lengthy segment that doesn’t advance the story but gives insight into the burden on Francis, and the play’s chance to include a scene that is just funny purely for its own sake, beautifully pitched by the cast – and if you worry for the poor lady dragged out of the front row, take a look at everyone in the curtain call and rest easy.
And there is added joy for theatre-lovers in Bean’s writing that sets this show above the average, with plenty of references to other writers and styles that add an extra dimension to the humour. The structure borrows much from Shakespeare comedies of course using twins and gender disguises to fool other characters, while the inclusion of asides to the audience which both Francis and Dolly use to great effect creates a sense of confederacy with the viewer, as well as plenty of meta ad libbing as a houmous sandwich offered by a man in the third row threatens to ruin everything.
Surprisingly there is a touch of Pinter too, a low-level hint of menace as Roscoe brings London’s 1960s East End gangsters to Brighton to frighten Charlie Clench as various degrees of powerful men try to intimidate each other to receive money owed with threats of violence that drives the plot. The contrasting seediness of this behaviour in the seaside setting is also very Pinteresque, redolent of the coastal boarding house of The Birthday Party, while one of the finest jokes references Chekhov’s The Seagull. There is a confidence in how seamlessly these influences fit into what is entirely a comic play, demonstrating Bean’s skill as a writer in creating larger-than-life-scenarios while acknowledge a debt to key theatre practitioners.
Designed by Mark Thompson this is a cartoon version of the 60s that suits the quirky style of the humour, lots of purposefully unreal looking flats painted to look like houses, pubs and a backdrop seaside vista complete with illustrated pier, while the interior of Charlie Clench’s house where several scenes are set is a homage to big prints and homely furnishings, all of which look just as wonderfully quirky and hyper-real onscreen. Director Nicholas Hytner keeps things flowing brilliantly and the 2 hours and 40 minutes of this production fly by, it’s 90-minutes before the interval (edited out of this National Theatre At Home version) and you won’t even notice you’re having so much fun. Scene changes are masked by a dropped curtain and a faux skiffle band called ‘The Craze’ with original and period-appropriate songs written, composed and performed by Grant Olding, along with band mates Philip James, Richard Coughlan and Ben Brooker which add to the 60s atmosphere. In the second half, these are enhanced and varied when the cast join in with steel drums, a girl group and even a horn-playing Oliver Chris.
As Francis, James Corden gives one of his best performances, managing the elements of the farce with ease while making it seem as though the story is unfolding naturally, especially enhanced by the odd ad lib as Corden reacts to audience interaction and tries not to laugh at fellow cast members. His Francis is a little weaselly initially as an opportunity to make double money drops in his lap, but there’s an everyman quality that brings the audience onside as the comic effects become increasingly ridiculous. Full of charm, Corden bewitches audiences in the room and at home as we hope for a happy ending all round.
The supporting roles are delivered with equal verve; Oliver Chris is every second a joy as the boarding school posh boy on the run, a big exuberant performance that mines a rich seam of comedy that has a sitcom silliness to the delivery (and how sad that his new play Jack Absolute Flies Again has to be postponed); Jemima Rooper as the disguised Roscoe / Rachel has tons of fun switching between gender characteristics while producing some genuine threat; Suzie Toase as love interest Dolly is a whip smart bookkeeper who knows how to manage her life and her man, while Daniel Rigby as aspiring actor Alan, Claire Lams as his permanently vacant fiancee Pauline and Fred Ridgeway as her father Charlie add plenty of extra dimension to the wonderful nonsense of the play.
The energy of this 2011 production carries to the screen so well and with four more days to see it on the National Theatre at Home Youtube Channel this is the injection of pure joy we all need right now. The NT has some absolutely stellar productions in its archive and it will be interesting to see if some of those filmed elsewhere will also feature depending how long the lockdown continues – Tom Hiddleston’s Coriolanus at the Donmar was exemplary, as was Ivo van Hove’s A View from the Bridge and Gillian Anderson in A Streetcar Named Desire both produced by the Young Vic. With three further productions announced, Jane Eyre from Thursday at 7pm, followed by Treasure Island and Twelfth Night on successive weeks, this inaugural home screening has been a communal gift to the nation, event theatre lives on!
One Man, Two Guvnors is available to watch for free via National Theatre at Home until 7pm on Thursday 9 April, when it will be replaced with Jane Eyre. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog
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