BWW Review: ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS, Nuffield Southampton Theatres
If any show proves that physical comedy is timeless, it's One Man, Two Guvnors, which brings a subversive 18th-century Italian comedy onto the 21st-century stage, and then promptly pushes it down the stairs to uproarious laughter.
Written by Richard Bean, One Man, Two Guvnors is a modernised version of The Servant of Two Masters, which was created in 1746 by Carlo Goldoni. It enjoyed a three-year run in London, opening in 2011 at The National Theatre and delighting audiences across the capital with the much-lauded James Corden at the helm.
This well-loved show has now been co-produced by Nuffield Southampton Theatres and The New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, and directed by Peter Rowe, and is making itself at home in Southampton for just over a week.
Francis Henshall is hungry, horny, and hapless. A failed musician who finds himself in Brighton in 1963, he gets caught up in a complicated and comical plot of mistaken identity and deception.
In his bid to satiate his enormous appetite for both good food and good women, he finds himself juggling two masters who must never meet (but who also have madcap plans of their own). Naturally, things get very messy and very merry, and there are mishaps, calamities and mischief galore.
The cast appears to be having just as much - if not more - fun as the audience throughout their performance. They are all larger than life characters, and each one has the audience in fits thanks to their impeccable timing and comedy skills.
The star of the show is undeniably the foolish and troublesome Francis Henshall, played by Philip Tomlin. It is hard to believe that this is Tomlin's first professional stage job. Every inch a jester in tweed, this is no doubt the start of an exciting period in his career, and he is a real pleasure to watch, throwing himself (literally) headfirst into the role he seems to be built for.
Luke Barton's Stanley Stubbers is a simply smashing ex-boarding-school boy who's on the run from the law. Clean cut with a slightly sinister edge (and some very questionable chest hair) he is witty, aloof and alive with one-liners.
George Maguire as aspiring thespian Alan Dangle is also wonderfully cringe-worthy with his ignorant arrogance and over-the-top dramatics, and Josie Dunn's Rachel Crabbe makes for an excellent master (in disguise!).
The butt of many jokes, and the unfortunate recipient of many a literal punchline, it's impossible to ignore Richard Leeming's Alfie (and indeed, his Old Woman!). He is a comic delight and has the audience in hysterics whenever he enters - and exits - the stage.
This is a classic farce. In contrast to its slightly complex plot, the laughs come from physical gaffs, gags, wordplay and slapstick. This 18th-century comedy has been transformed into a timeless modern-day hit with ease; watching people fall over never really gets old. Despite being carefully choreographed, the skill and boundless energy with which the whole thing is performed gives an air of genuine improvisation, making it even more entertaining.
There's nothing like a luckless underdog to get the audience laughing. One Man, Two Guvnors harks back to the days of Norman Wisdom and the Carry On films; it's almost pantomime in its blundering humour. Though simple, it's incredibly effective, raising laugh after laugh from an audience who find themselves willing these ridiculous characters to succeed in their ridiculous plans, if only for more chaos to ensue.
The 1960's setting is complementary to this, too. It's nostalgic for the days before comedy relied on fancy technology or shocking content for laughs. The set and costumes (designed by Libby Watson) set us firmly in this swinging decade; the staging appears to be fairly simple, but is deceptively clever and provides the perfect backdrop for absolute pandemonium.
Henshall's audience interaction offers the opportunity for private jokes; we side with him, willing him to succeed in his deceptive endeavours, egging him on to finally get fed and get the girl, too. There is a wonderful relationship between the crowd and the cast which adds another level of delight to the show.
During set changes, a skiffle band formed by the cast themselves performs songs seemingly plucked straight from the sixties (but written by Grant Olding). The addition of live music adds even more character to the production and ties each scene together with style.
It isn't hard to see why this show has been such a hit in the past, and this latest production lives up to the reputation that precedes it. You'd be an utter fool to miss this.
One Man, Two Guvnors is a first-rate celebration of the art of physical comedy, slapstick and silliness, and a perfect antidote to the serious and somewhat stressful world we currently live in.
Stop clowning around, and get yourself a ticket.
Photo credit: Mike Kwasniak