Review – One Man, Two Guvnors – National Theatre

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18th century Italian comedy reset in 20th century England … what could go wrong?

From the print ads for “One Man, Two Guvnors,” a rewrite of Goldoni’s original The Servant of Two Masters, plenty of missteps seemed likely. 60s era thugs, maybe not so comic. Brighton setting, maybe a bit overdone. And, seriously, since when do these plays “modernized” for our tastes really ever work? I mean, come on, Man of Mode, did anyone really buy the romance?

Based on the gales of laughter blowing out of the Lyttleton’s doors, it looks like all questions of “does this work modernized” have been firmly answered yes. A plot revolving around a male gangster’s twin sister (Jemima Rooper) masquerading as her brother in an attempt to get some much needed money from a criminal acquaintance (Fred Ridgeway) seems entirely plausible. The “tough” recruited by the sister (James Corden) – who turns out to be an out of work musician – explains his situation to us in a logical enough fashion. In fact, as the comedy get cranked further up, our connection with reality starts to become more and more tenuous, carrying us with it as it drifts away form the stage into the grid and up to the rafters. It’s funny. It’s supposed to be funny. It mostly makes sense. And we want to go along for the ride. Comedy cream-pie gangsters straight out of Some Like It Hot, people running screaming across the stage from different directions a la “Carry On,” and a plot hinging on opposite sex “identical” twins? The obvious response is, “And why not?”

Typical of commedia dell’arte, the characters are really just “types:” the young lovers (Claire Lams and Daniel Rigby), the sexy serving wench, the buffoonish underling ruled by his appetites. But the playwright has chosen types we can relate to … the fatuous young actor (Daniel Rigby as one half of the shockingly stupid lovers), the crime lord attempting to keep it clean, the competent (but flirtatious) bookkeeper (Suzie Toase making her “wench” role even better by being smart as well as phwoar). By using types, we have expected jokes to laugh at – of course the lawyer is going to use big words – but because of the new setting, we get to laugh at new things. The old waiter has a pacemaker that can be dialed to nine; the crime lord’s old prison pal (Trevor Laird) makes references to his love of his life being found in prison; the cross-dressed sister’s lover (Oliver Chris) is into S&M. And the fresh script by Richard Bean delivers joke after joke – some of them passing by unheard or unloved, but most of them right on and in every way making the dialogue worth listening to.

While the buffoonery does pass right into panto-land (the end of act one made me think Clive Rowe was going to do a dame turn), this show makes no apologies for turning the comedy volume to eleven. This kind of cross-gender “ooh er sir” farce is never going to be everyone’s favorite type of theater, but if you enjoy it, I say this show gets it just right. I loved The Servant with Two Masters in its orginal form back in 2001, and I think this version is even better, with characters we can more easily relate to but all of the humor firmly intact – in fact, I think it’s been broadened. My prediction: this is going to be the show you want to go to when you want to have fun, and if you want to see it, you’d better buy your tickets now.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Wednesday, May 18th, 2011. For a more enthusiastic review, see the West End Whingers; a contrary review should be appearing soon from farce-hating Ought to be Clowns – my date for the night. Opening night is the 24th and it will run at the National through July 26th, then tour starting at the end of September at the Waterside, Theater Royal Plymouth, The Lowry, the New Alexandra Theater, finishing at the Kings Theater Edinburgh October 25-29.)

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4 Responses to “Review – One Man, Two Guvnors – National Theatre”

  1. JohnnyFox Says:

    I’m in the ‘Yes’ lobby, too, despite initial reservations.

    http://johnnyfoxlondon.blogspot.com/2011/05/in-which-i-take-it-all-back-and.html

  2. Bruce Says:

    I was hoping you might have reviewed “Coco” by now. Can we expect one?

    • webcowgirl Says:

      Why yes! I’ve been out of town for the last ten days so my theater writing has been taking a rest. Tune back in next Monday.

  3. A year in blogging – Webcowgirl’s most popular posts of 2011 – and tips for improving your blog stats « Life in the Cheap Seats – Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews Says:

    […] Review – One Man, Two Guvnors – National Theatre997 […]

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