The plot is a bit complicated, so I’ll defer to the description provided by the National Theatre (London’s, not DC’s), where One Man, Two Guvnors premiered last year:
“Fired from his skiffle band, Francis Henshall becomes minder to Roscoe Crabbe, a small time East End hood, now in Brighton to collect £6,000 from his fiancee’s dad. But Roscoe is really his sister Rachel posing as her own dead brother, who’s been killed by her boyfriend, Stanley Stubbers. Holed up at the Cricketers’ Arms, the permanently ravenous Francis spots the chance of an extra meal ticket and takes a second job with one Stanley Stubbers, who is hiding from the police and waiting to be re-united with Rachel. To prevent discovery, Francis must keep his two guvnors apart.”
One Man, Two Guvnors is Richard Bean’s adaptation of Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni’s 18th Century play, Arlecchino Servitore di Due Padroni (Servant of Two Masters). Bean’s version sets the action in 1960’s Brighton, England.
Arlecchino, or Harlequin, as he’s better known on this side of the pond, is the crafty servant, a key stock character of commedia dell’arte. In One Man, Two Guvnors, Harlequin is Francis Henshall, brilliantly and breathlessly played by James Cordern, who originated the role in London. Part Jackie Gleason, part Chris Farley, part something wholly his own, Cordern is a big-boned cuddly fellow with a seemingly endless supply of shy charm juxtaposed with boundless energy and physical endurance. He quite literally hurls himself from guvnor to guvnor, conniving, cajoling and, at all times, rhapsodizing about food. His demanding tummy is his main impetus for undertaking the daunting task of trying to serve two shady bosses at once,while trying to keep them from running into each other.
Cordern’s extraordinary physical comedy is complemented by his ability to charge gleefully through the fourth wall to interact with the audience. His performance is ‘balls to the wall’ from start to finish and it’s one you don’t want to miss.
The rest of the cast is solid, with standout turns by Daniel Rigby as a besotted actor, Suzie Toase as a saucy bookkeeper who arouses Henshall’s other appetites, and Tom Edden as a doddering waiter.
Nicholas Hytner directs Bean’s zany script as a classical farce/British music hall mash-up. Hytner is the ringmaster of this daffy circus, sending characters racing hither and thither, and props flying about Mark Thompson’s delightful set.
Even the scene changes are entertaining, as a nifty skiffle band called ‘The Craze’ takes the stage to perform catchy original tunes by Grant Olding that range from rock to rockabilly, with a couple of Beatles-style riffs thrown in for good measure.
Special praise – and a pie in the face –go to fight director Kate Waters and physical comedy director Cal McCrystal. This talented team has crafted a dining scene that rivals the Marx Brothers. The audience, this reviewer included, laughed so hard, you could almost hear our collective sides splitting.
After the intermission, the action is a bit laid back, primarily because most of the visual fireworks and foolery are loaded into the first act. Still, the play makes for a happy and hilarious evening.
This encore broadcast of the National Theatre performance of One Man, Two Guvnors was only a one night event. Fortunately for you, all the key members of the original London cast have transferred to the current Broadway production. The show has been nominated for seven Tony Awards, including Best Actor in a Play (Cordern), Best Featured Actor in a Play (Edden), Best Director (Hytner), and Best Original Score (Olding).
As an added bonus, you can even check out Goldoni’s original play, The Servant of Two Masters, through July 8th at Shakespeare Theatre Company.
One Man, Two Guvnors is currently running at the Music Box Theatre, 239 West 45th St., in NYC. Purchase tickets online or call Telecharge at (800) 432-7250.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.
Shakespeare Theatre Company’s next National Theatre Live is Frankenstein – a new play by Nick Dear, based on the novel by Mary Shelley – on August 7 and 12, 2012 at 7:30 PM, at Sidney Harman Hall. Purchase tickets here.