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One Man, Two Guvnors, National Theatre

Richard Bean, based on The Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldoni
Directed by Nicholas Hytner
Courtesy of National Theatre
Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors, based on Carlo Goldoni’s Commedia dell’arte classic of The Servant of Two Masters, has been one of the most eagerly anticipated productions of the National’s current season. It reunites Nicholas Hytner with James Corden for the first time since Hytner’s outrageously successful production of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys catapulted Corden into the spotlight for the first time. Our expectations for the National’s latest comedy were therefore high, and we were not disappointed; One Man, Two Guvnors is a triumph, and one of the most side-splittingly hilarious productions to ever be staged in London.
The story focuses around the mischief of Francis Henshall (Corden), the loveable and persistently hungry servant (or Harlequin in Commedia terms) who takes on two jobs as a servant to two different people. Farce ensues as Henshall desperately tries to hold down both jobs and keep his two masters apart, despite the fact that unbeknown to him they are actually lovers (innamorati).
One Man, Two Guvnors is almost a new genre of play. It is part theatrical farce, part stand-up comedy and part Commedia dell’arte. Direct address, audience interaction and over-the-top stock characters are characteristic of Bean’s new play, and the result is an evening of absolute hilarity. What is brilliant about this new comedy is that it doesn’t ever take itself too seriously; the fourth wall is non-existent, the actors clearly struggle to hold themselves together and the acting is completely over the top and absurd. In short, it is a triumph, and exactly how Commedia is supposed to be performed.
James Corden himself is superb. His performance as the overweight, permanently hungry and uproariously clumsy Henshall is without fault. The comic timing is superb, his pace and energy are never found wanting, and from the moment that he falls backwards over a sofa whilst trying to catch a peanut in his mouth the audience are gripped by his sensationally comic performance. Special mentions also go to Oliver Chris as the public school educated Stanley Stubbers, and to Daniel Rigby as the ridiculously bad actor Alan Dangle. Tom Edden, as the shaking 87-year old Alfie is also outstanding.
Technically, the production was not perfect, but this just added to the overall hilarity. The lack of any real fourth wall just meant that any technical glitches (of which there were a couple) were easily rolled up into the farce, and they actually made it funnier in places. The pace is relentless, particularly in the first act, and the sweat pouring of Corden’s brow is testament to the physical challenge that this production presents to its cast. The pace is even maintained through scene changes by live music performed by a skiffle band, The Craze, who add to the carnival atmosphere of the evening. There was a moment of doubt at the start of the second act as the audience, no doubt fatigued from the hilarity of the first act, seemed to take a few moments to get back into the swing of things, but it soon picked itself up again.
One Man, Two Guvnors presented one of the most entertaining evenings of comedy that I have ever witnessed. I cannot remember a time when I have laughed so much. It is light-hearted, it doesn’t take itself seriously and it is ridiculously funny. If you want an evening which will leave you feeling physically exhausted from all the laughter, then this is the show for you. There will of course be those who pick holes in it, saying that there were glitches and that the comedy was ‘too silly’ and ‘too easy’. Does that matter? No. All that matters is that this show will have you rolling in the aisles.
One Man, Two Guvnors is also discussed in our first podcast.
One Man, Two Guvnors runs at the National Theatre until 26th July 2011.
Box Office: 020 7452 3000 or book online at http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/

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