Commedia dell’Arte, the 16th century Italian theatrical form, is a gift that keeps on giving.
Not only did it give us sketch comedy and Punch and Judy shows, it gave us Carlo Goldoni’s Servant of Two Masters – the genesis of that 1743 play has recently been transformed by Richard Bean into Britain’s smash hit One Man, Two Guvnors.
Another British-born show popping into Australia by way of New York City (James Cordon won the Best Actor Tony Award last year for his leading role in the show), Sydney Theatre Company is hosting the hilarious play for a limited season.
Taking the Venetian work into 1960s Brighton is a fantastic conceit, from the costumes (Poppy Hall) to the stage design (muted and gently nostalgic, by Mark Thompson), to the pleasantly funny turns of phrase, to the scene transitions, where the stage is taken over by a Buddy Holly-esque band (and other brief musical acts). It feels delightfully, charmingly old-fashioned, but still entirely accessible. And, of course, it’s the proverbial barrel of laughs.
The Broadway incarnation, which is the one currently entertaining in Sydney, brings with it the crisp direction of Nicholas Hytner (his History Boys stopped by Sydney Theatre in 2006), who knows well how to handle sharp, rapid-fire scenes and delivery, and embraces the off-kilter with an impish balancing act.
The plot is all in the title. Francis Henshall (Owain Arthur), an affable, thoroughly likable Arlecchino figure, is in the employ of two “guvnors” – Roscoe Crabbe (actually twin sister Rachel Crabbe in disguise) and Stanley Stubbers ( a criminal with good breeding), and he’s on these two separate sets of books without either employer knowing. He does try to keep it that way – all he wants is food and a bit of extra pay – but Rachel and Stanley have a past that doesn’t so much creep up on the story as much as run smack into it somewhere at the beginning, spending the couple of hours on stage tumbling over, getting back up, and flailing over again from the collision.
Broadly physical (watch out for ailing octogenarian waiter Alfie, played with gleeful feebleness by Mark Jackson) but not only physical, some of lines are wild and wildly funny, flung dizzyingly into the audience. A couple of jokes didn’t land on opening night, but it hardly mattered when all the others hit exactly the right spot; it’s such a warm and welcoming feeling, sitting in an audience that’s never entirely without a laugh just waiting to jump off their lips and into the air.
It’s a long play, even with the intermission and the quickly-paced jokes, owing to dalliances into audience banter and the irresistibility of repeating a gag that gets a real rise out of the crowd. A couple of scenes might feel several seconds too long but it’s hard to care when you’re having such a good time. It’s the energy in the room that eases any potential discomfort; the filmed National Theatre Live version of the play felt, in comparison, much longer.
The play rests squarely on the shoulders of Francis Henshall and Owain Arthur has built a character that doesn’t hide under the shadow of James Corden for even a moment. He’s all over the stage, winsome in his foibles and daring in his comic choices.
It’s Edward Bennett as Stanley Stubbers, one of those Guvnors, however, that just may be the funniest of the lot. His lines are the ones that call for raucous laughter, and Bennett plays him with a curiously sincere gung-ho affect that is utterly lovable.
The rest of the characters all wear that thoroughly comfortable, irrepressible glow that comes from being fully realised, even when the point of total realisation is ridiculousness; the actors are uniformly sharp and having a uniformly good time. Amy Booth-Steel is electric as the wonderfully hot-tempered Dolly, Francis’ crush; star-crossed lovers Alan (Leon Williams) and Pauline (Kellie Shirley) are not quite bright but utter beacons of comedy. The ensemble as a whole is impressive; there’s never a dull moment and so much of that rests on the shoulders of these actors – and the musicians, led by music director Richie Hart.
One Man, Two Guvnors is relentlessly funny and, more importantly, feels fresh, new, and exciting – a real theatrical event. Not to be missed.