One Man, Two Guvnors is a reworking of Goldoni’s Servant of Two Masters, by writer Richard Bean and director Nicholas Hytner, promising its audience ‘an evening of side-splitting delight,’ complete with comedian of the minute, James Corden. And it is: reminiscent of the classically British ‘Carry On’ films, the play is energetically vulgar and brilliantly entertaining.
Following Francis Henshall’s dismissal from his skiffle band, it follows his attempts to juggle two jobs in order to fund his partiality to a good pub lunch. The comedy lies in his attempts to make sure his two masters never meet, made more difficult by the fact that they are in fact romantically entwined. One ‘master’ is in fact dressed up as her dead brother in the aim of collecting a Â£6000 dowry from his fiancÃ©’s father. Richard Bean’s script adheres to the basic plot line of Goldoni’s classic ‘commedia dell’arte’, but takes the setting from Italy to louche 1960’s Brighton. This allows the play a light hearted and modern familiarity, leading critics to aptly describe it as a ‘seaside postcard come to life’.
Bean also keeps to the characterisation of Francis, played by Corden, whose actions are driven by the whim of his continuously rumbling stomach. Luckily, Corden’s portly figure and comical crudity fit snugly into his intentionally hideous checked suit, as well as the original characterisation. This thankfully allows us to suspend his Gavin and Stacey image.
That said, the slightly pathetic and pitiful streak he adds to his character does sometimes jar with the fiery, thick-skinned nature we have come to know from the Brit Awards. It is also hard to continue to find his relentless joshing with the audience as humorous after the first half, or indeed to ignore Corden’s conspicuous esteem for his own wit. He takes this slightly too far when he ‘marvels’ for a good fifteen minutes at a member of the audience actually handing him a sandwich when he asks for one as part of the script onstage. Moreover, the magic of this ostensibly improvised interaction is dispelled once you talk to anyone who has seen the play on a different night; one of you proudly brings up the unique nature of the sandwich incident, which is promptly met by the other saying with incredulity that the same thing happened on the night they went as well.
The best moment of the play undoubtedly lays within the quivering hands of ‘Alfie’, an aged waiter, as he painstakingly serves a number of courses. He looks as if he ought to be long dead, and indeed spends his time on stage hurtling from one near-death experience to another.
Although the play’s key feature is its traditional buffoonery, all the actors are fresh and tirelessly funny. ‘One Man, Two Guv’nors’ is a vintage comedy brilliantly reupholstered for the 21st century.