Last Thursday, the National Theatre launched its new lockdown programme, National Theatre At Home, with the hit production of One Man, Two Guvnors. This farce, based on the Commedia Dell’arte comedy: The Servant with Two Masters by Carlo Goldoni (1707-1793), premiered at the National in 2011 before transferring to the West End and eventually to Broadway. Just as Hollywood produced slickly sweet, happiness-filled films during the Great Depression, this was the National’s attempt at lifting the nation’s spirits during the darkest times most of us have ever known – and it was a great success.
To set the scene, we are in Brighton and Francis Henshall (James Corden) finds himself serving as a minder to two bosses to earn some money. What he doesn’t realise is that one is Rachel who is dressed up as her own dead twin brother to try and find her lover, Stanley Stubbers who actually killed her brother and is Henshall’s other guvnor. You keeping up? The only thing Henshall has to do is keep the pair from discovering each other and also keep his eternally hungry stomach satisfied. Easy.
This show was arguably the making of James Corden in the USA. In 2011 he was already known for his comedy performances in both Alan Bennett’s The History Boys and the TV series Gavin and Stacey, but the Broadway run of One Man, Two Guvnors was where he was talent-spotted to host The Late Late Show.
After finally seeing this show, I am not surprised at his subsequent success on both sides of the Atlantic. The writing was sublime, the ensemble hilarious but Corden himself was electric: both the star and the glue that held the entire project together. I could watch his perfectly choreographed self–fighting all day. He is so completely lovable and endearing that it is hard not to side with him, even when he is orchestrating some rather questionable audience participation. Corden was funny, but he was joined by a truly marvellous ensemble, including Oliver Chris as the public school toff who adds some very inappropriate, but side-splitting humour into the mix with gusto.
The whole production, directed by Nicholas Hytner, was slick and utterly hilarious. It transported me away from the grim news and into another world, where the goal of the day is to eat as much of a meal you are serving to your bosses without them noticing. This particular scene has to be one of the funniest moments I have ever witnessed on stage, up there with Noises Off.
My heart goes out to the stage managers having to provide such a large quantity of food on stage, only to have to mop it up in the interval thanks to Henshall’s adventures.
Having had to do this once for a production of Journey’s End, I can only imagine the sigh when Hytner instructed that Corden should have soup. One of the only criticisms I do have was that too much of the show was directed to the stalls, especially when Corden conducted what can only be described as a stand-up comedy gig centred around a sandwich (I honestly have no idea how much was ad-lib and how much was planned – it was brilliant). Although slightly frustrating for those not in the stalls, there was a time when they seemed quite pleased that they were out of audience participation reach – you’ll see what I mean.
If you are searching for some profound, witty comedy, then this is not for you, but if you’re in need of some clever slapstick then open up Youtube. We may all know what direction the play is going in, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable. Apparently, at one point, Hytner had to tell the cast to dial back the jokes/ad-libbing as the performance was getting a little slack. This is a long show in itself but once you add the laughter breaks, be warned, you are looking at nearly three hours of fun.
The second half wasn’t quite as wonderful as the first, but this was probably only because my diaphragm couldn’t handle much more laughter. It was the perfect combination of slapstick, soup and skiffle bands to distract and it is clear why the National chose this one to kick off the at home season. I really felt that I was at the theatre, wine glass in hand, knowing that thousands of others were laughing at the same jokes at the same time – it felt like we really are in this one together.