As a general rule, I don’t tend to question the National Theatre. Yes, so it has admittedly thrown me the odd curveball in its time and no, I do not recall such duds as The Revenger’s Tragedy and Earthquakes In London (it was an ecological misery-memoir featuring Coldplay and dancing robots, kids) with anything but a note of deep betrayal, but all the same, the National Theatre is still the place where I have witnessed such gems as Frankenstein, Philistines, Burnt By The Sun, Hamlet and After The Dance, and honestly, I’m usually happy just to take whatever it gives me. Even so, I did approach Nick Hytner’s new attempt to recue James Corden from a strangely self-inflicted spiral of woeful sketch shows and lesbian vampires with a note of caution, keeping in mind both that actors who keep too long to the screen can lose their capacity for theatre and that that lesbian vampire movie really was the worst. I absolutely and completely should not have worried.
Based on Goldoni’s 1746 work, A Servant of Two Masters, One Man Two Guvnors takes the Technicolor tone of a 1960s Carry On, following the tangled affairs of a gloriously barmy array of characters, all set against a Brighton postcard of a backdrop and accompanied by a live Skiffle group whose pre-curtain performance alone sets an immediate Pantomime tone. Rachel Crabbe (Jemima Rooper; deserving of deep respect for agreeing to that haircut) is in disguise, dressed up as her dead twin brother, the gay gangster Rosco, in order to exact money out of small-time crook Charlie Clench (Fred Ridgeway) by claiming to want to marry his daughter Pauline (Claire Lams). Meanwhile, Rachel’s public school fiancé Stanley Stubbers (Oliver Chris; clearly having more fun than anyone deserves to be paid for) is, unbeknownst to her, in hiding in the very same town, after killing her brother in a fistfight. Add to the mix Corden as clownish cockney Francis who accidentally manages to get himself engaged as servant to both lovers simultaneously, and the grounds for two hours’ worth of increasingly hysterical misunderstanding are set.
The jokes come in glorious onslaughts of cheese, satire and silliness and every character is a slimly-drawn yet pitch-perfect fountain of comedy. Of particular note is Chris, whose entire performance is a masterclass in full-bodied silliness, speaking with a Bertie Wooster drawl and peppering everything with offhand references to boarding school gang rape and unctuous expressions that smack of pure inbreeding (“Yummy!” he notes, on seeing two other characters kiss). Similarly excellent is Daniel Rigby, who finally earns my forgiveness for winning a BAFTA when I had no idea who he was by turning in what may be one of the finest comic performances I have seen all year as Pauline’s theatrical lover Alan, whose real name, as a point of fact, turns out to be Orlando. “This is a new age, angry young men are running the theatre and they’re writing plays about men called Alan!”. Theatrical self-awareness is a particular delight throughout this production, flowing both from Alan’s endlessly anticlimactic posturing (“”she is pure, innocent, unspoiled by education, like a new bucket”) and a frequently pantomime-like recognition of the audience’s presence.
“I can tell he’s an actor,” Stanley mutters of Alan at one point “He stands side-on, as if there were an audience just there…”.
Pantomime is perhaps the key word here, for the entire production is very clearly and effectively constructed around a pantomime frame and indeed, audience participation is woven into the essential plotline of the play itself, with several instances of audience members being dragged up onto the stage and incorporated into the narrative. Each character, in turn, joins the Skiffle band in little skits between scene changes (Corden plays the Xylophone, Chris plays the horns, Rigby takes his shirt off and plays his chest), evoking endearingly nostalgic ideas of the Music Hall, just as the jokes recall the oddly off-colour innocence of the best Carry On movies. A scene at the very centre of the play, involving Corden attempting to serve both Guvnors lunch at the same time in two separate rooms is pure unadulterated farce and is helped along in comedic spades by a geriatric waiter with Parkinson’s and a pacemaker, whose Lurch-like presence and tendency to fall down the stairs reduced the audience, on my viewing, to levels of hysteria previously unheard of.
An overriding tone of barely controlled chaos pervades the entire production, leading to moments of particular hilarity when a body double for Corden appears to accidentally give the game away during a chase scene. That said, this sense of near-hysteria is not always staged and indeed, I have seldom seen a worse cast for corpsing. Chief offender amongst them is Chris, whose seeming inability to keep a straight face more or less becomes a joke in itself as the audience waits with bated breath for the next moment of barely controlled giggling. A particularly memorable exchange, when Stanley attempts to come up with a fake name for himself and manages nothing more than to look at a dustbin and then a pub sign and introduce himself as Dustin Pubsign, was a particular corpsing moment on my viewing and whilst in different circumstances, in a different play, such behaviour might seem irritatingly unprofessional, here it is simply all in the spirit of the production.
As for Corden, I must admit, I have seldom seen a more joyous example of an actor so clearly back where he belongs. Taking the central position as title character and chief communicator with the audience, Corden seems to fill the stage with the kind of slightly grubby good-humour that it is difficult not to be charmed by. He plays out both fast-paced dialogue and physical comedy with total ease and seems to have particular fun with his audience exchanges which, whilst we must assume them to be at least partially scripted, he carries off with the natural charm and humour of an MC attempting to preside over a show in which everything is going wrong.
One Man Two Guvnors is a refreshing delight of a production, taking a distinctly British pantomime frame to a very old play and producing a charmingly anarchic result. Suffice it to say, I will go right on with my no-questions policy with the National Theatre, and long may productions like this prove me right.