I dread seeing shows that I’ve read other people’s good reviews of or heard a lot of good word-of-mouth about. I dread it even more than seeing shows I’ve heard only negative things about. At least with the negative ones I know I won’t be disappointed, and if the show ends up better than I’ve heard, it’s a pleasant surprise. But with the hits, it’s easy for things to go sour in a million different ways. And it is this phenomenon that may explain why I was absolutely smitten with the National Theater’s production of One Man, Two Guvnors that ended up being my final theater experience of 2011. What a way to go.
The show is all that people have said about it and so much more. Only so often do comedies, and particularly physical comedies, turn sublime. But they do, and this is one of them. The story is a loose adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s Commedia dell’Arte classic The Servant of Two Masters. Guvnors’ writer, Richard Bean, and its director, Nicholas Hytner, have updated the action to a more contemporary setting, 1960s Britain, while trying to preserve the hallmarks of Commedia dell’Arte performance. To adapt Commedia for contemporary audience is not new, but I don’t recall ever seeing it done so well, and so honestly. Hytner and Bean have infused their source material with the unique perspective and elements of British humor. (Or at least those elements of uniquely British humor that fit well in the Commedia setting.) The Brighton of 1963 with its changing sexual mores, skinny ties, and broadening cultural influence is perfect right down to the four-man band, The Craze, that provides original period pop songs transitioning from skiffle to rock for scene changes. But this is no ersatz Austin Powers version of Britain’s swinging sixties. The show is far more loving and affectionate in its humor. And it is far more often precisely on the mark when it comes to big laugh-out-loud guffaws. It’s one thing to laugh in a show, it’s another when you are doing so much of it that you don’t even know it’s happening.
There isn’t a weak link in this superb cast. But it is also true that Hytner and Bean are fortunate in having James Corden in the Arlecchino role of Frances Henshall. Henshall is the clever servant despite his lack of book-smarts whose half-hearted commitment to two different masters is nothing compared to his boundless commitment to food and the promise of romance. Corden proves to be masterful in the kind of physical clowning around that makes legends. I’m not overstating the case when I saw names like Lewis and Tati come to mind in this show. There is a fair amount of audience participation in the show and Corden handles all of it with ease. On the matinee I saw, Corden also confronted a man filming part of the performance with his camera, mid-improvised monologue and managed to keep everyone in stitches while stopping the offending behavior without missing a beat. It’s a shame that he (or any performer for that matter) has to deal with this kind of thing, but his ability to deal with it in a way that didn’t disrupt the show or bring the audience down was in its own way a breathtaking example of his skills.
And yet, there is a real sense of community in this cast’s performance. Tom Edden has just as many great physical comedy moments in the story and Jemima Rooper’s cross-dressing gangster part is superbly done. Daniel Rigby’s lovelorn actor Alan Dangle is perfectly pitched as is Oliver Chris’ Stanley Stubbers. But some of the funniest moments in the show happen when things go slightly off the rails and one can tell that the cast is sometimes cracking each other up as much as the audience. There is danger in this to be sure with things disintegrating into chaos, but Hytner knows when to hold back and has kept everyone reined in so far. The show was almost instantly sold out when it moved out of the NT’s South Bank home into the West End for 16 weeks, and the show and Corden will come to New York this April. Given how quickly tickets disappear for this show, I'd recommend you move on them quickly when you can.