ONE MAN, TWO 'GUVNORS' at the National Theatre
When two reclusive, friendless shut-ins of my acquaintance begged me to take an unwanted ticket to the first preview of One Man, Two Guvnors I closed my ears to the pitiful scratch of their nails on the barrel’s already well-scraped base and, as had their other contacts, ran carefully through a list of pros and cons.
Pros : 1. directed by Nick Hytner, not often a failure. 2. contains Suzy Toase and Green Wing’s Oliver Chris whom I’ve always found decorative. 3. Original by Carlo Goldoni, author of my first school play (although not, you ageist facebuggers, a contemporary) 4. cast complaining online about difficulties of coping with entrances, props and script - could be a so-bad-it’s-good car-crash.
Cons : 1. arse-clamp Travelex second-row seats in the Lyttleton which are already the reason I don’t like Sunday in the Park with George where I think the sciatica first set in. 2. they are both enthusiastic topers and I haven’t had a glass of wine in six weeks so may well keel over on first contact with the high-octane bin end Venezuelan Merlot they tend to imbibe.
3, and possibly the superinjunction of Cons, contains James Corden whose recent career some thought exhibited an arc like a drunk’s vomitory parabola from projectile History Boys promise through glorious Gavin and Stacey zenith plummeting via footy- award- and chat-show laddish ubiquity to splashdown in a dire two-handed TV sketch show from which only a vestigial bounceback of carrot and sweetcorn may yet remain.
So I went.
How wrong we collectively were.
First off, the show is fronted by a superb skiffle band – The (homonymic) Craze – to pinpoint the setting in the pre-Beatles shiny suited sixties, cover scene changes and give several members of the cast a virtuoso opportunity on xylophone, horns or close harmony vocals.
Second, it’s scripted as a filthy pantomime by Richard Bean who both penned England People Very Nice and gagged up the flaccid prose of London Assurance in another sharp collaboration with Hytner. This is coarser cut, and played even more broadly with direct dialogue with the audience, ad-libs and what amounts to a splosh scene in the fractionally overextended second act.
Third, there are some very fine comic turns, notably by Oliver Chris as a Cameronesque Flashman who may single-handedly have repopularised the chinless wonder, by Toase who could perhaps be persuaded to bring her northern broadside down a notch or two in the interest of blending, by Daniel Rigby as Chris’s actorly love rival in a thoroughly engaging performance of an Angry Young Man conflicted with beatnik cowardice, and by Tom Edden as an 87-year old waiter whose physical comedy rivals Norman Wisdom’s and whose tureen-bearing skills challenge Julie Walters in the two-soup sketch stakes.
Fourth, there is James Kimberley (I am not making this up) Corden. Actors, especially chubby ones, are hard to pigeonhole and for every vocal sitcom fan there’s a theatre lover who wishes he’d stuck to the craft and honed his stage skills instead of spunking them up the wall in oeuvres like Lesbian Vampire Killers. However, in his portrayal of Francis the dually employed servant he fulfils not only the Harlequin role from the Commedia dell’Arte plundered by Goldoni for his characters, but also the otherwise vacant position on the London stage of Showman. Because that’s what he is, holding the audience in his palm and carrying them and the production before him. If he inhabits the character with trace elements of Smithy, that’s simply appropriate recycling and Hytner’s direction tames any excess.
James – don’t call him Kimberley – also has the good grace to engage with admirers and detractors alike on Twitter, and messaged me this morning about his sketch show regrets with Well, as Francis says in the play, “Only the man who never does nothing never makes no mistakes"
No-one has made a mistake here in casting, direction or script, and neither should you. This is as close to a sure-fire hit as I have seen in a year. Go.
Thanks to everyone who joined Erin Kelly, Melanie McGrath and me at Mansfield Central Library on Saturday 25 February. We had a panel discussion and Q&A, ...