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One Man, Two Guvnors, A Million Laughs

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I can’t, under any circumstances, imagine my husband willingly agreeing to see a comedy from the National Theatre Of Great Britain, especially as directed by the esteemed Nicholas Hytner. I mean, remember all those great laughs in War Horse, The History Boys, and Miss Saigon? This is not a group of theater people particularly known for being The Laff Factory. But there’s more. One Man, Two Guvnors has been adapted by Richard Bean from Carlo Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters, a classic in the Commedia dell’Arte genre, circa 1746. Buh-bye.

But the joke is on all of us who assumed this would be, at best, a stuffy, meaningful night of highbrow witticism. It is, instead, chocked full of (forgive me) slapsticks and dick jokes, much more Three Stooges than Noel Coward.

I won’t tell you to forget all your cares while you watch this farce, but there are two things you don’t have to worry about: the plot, and the fact that, especially in the first scene, it’s sometimes hard to understand the actors. In a nutshell, it’s the seaside resort of Brighton, England, in 1963; Francis (James Corden), a horny, hungry clown of a man, agrees to work for both Roscoe, who is actually Rachel (Jemima Rooper), and Stanley (Oliver Chris), a posh gent. Roscoe/Rachel is engaged to pretty but dumb Pauline (Claire Lams), who is in love with Alan (Daniel Rigby), the world’s most affected actor. Francis has a letch for Dolly (Suzie Toase), a juicy tomato of a woman. Throw in a couple of bumbling fathers, an ancient waiter, and several confusing letters, and mayhem ensues.

In terms of accents, particularly in that first scene, well, we all know these people talk funny. But as the play progresses, we start to get used to it, and the characters who appear in subsequent scenes don’t have accents that are quite as incomprehensible.

As Francis, the central character, James Corden holds the entire piece together with impeccable comic timing, a mastery of improvisation, and charm that just won’t quit. Dressed in a mismatched plaid outfit, pudgy, and rubbery faced, he manages the stage like a ringmaster with a dozen acts performing all at once. He’s best when dealing directly with the audience; particularly those brave souls who get up on the boards with him. He often breaks up, but doesn’t break character.

The show is nearly stolen by Tom Edden, who plays Alfie, a waiter who’s on his last legs, kept going only by his pacemaker. Edden reminds me of Marty Feldmen, the goggle eyed comedian known best for his work with Mel Brooks. Edden’s expression is so funny, it’s nearly frightening, and his physical comedy makes the audience roar with laughter. This is a priceless performance.

I also love Oliver Chris, as Stanley, the most hilariously over the top English twit since John Cleese. Tall, thin, with sort of blond-orangey hair, he plays his character as just this side of deranged, and pretty much lives up to our worst fears about the demented English. Definitely check out his bio in the Playbill; it’s distinctively clever and amusing.

Before the curtain and during scene changes, there’s music by a group called The Craze. Their sound goes from Buddy Holly to early Beatles, and is up tempo and cheery. You can’t understand a word they’re singing, so I have no clue if the lyrics have anything to do with the dialogue. Their inclusion makes this play seem like even more of a music house turn.

It’s been a while since a Broadway show could accurately be described as a romp, but One Man, Two Guvnors certainly falls into that category. It is too long; note to all those involved in determining the length of productions: if it’s over two hours, it better be Hamlet. This isn’t, and should be cut. But for Pete’s Sake, leave in all the funny bits. It’s an election year, and we need something rollicking; we need this production, which so skillfully makes us laugh.

One Man, Two Guvnors
The Music Box
239 West 45th Street

Michall Jeffers is an accomplished Cultural Journalist. She writes extensively, both in print and online. Her eponymous cable TV show is syndicated throughout the tri-state area, and features celebrity interviews, reviews, and commentary. She is a voting member of Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Association, and International Association of Theatre Critics.

2 Responses to One Man, Two Guvnors, A Million Laughs

  1. MartiSichel says:

    As a longtime fan of British comedy, the Mersey Beat sound and all-round Anglophile, I have to say I am a little disheartened by Ms. Jeffers’ review. To write a negative review based around the incomprehensibility of the cast’s accents — sighting them as a shortcoming of the show — really seems like a shortcoming of the review. I would be worried that those kinds of comments would prevent some people from attending a show that received nothing but the highest praise from every major reviewer on the West End and now several Tony nominations. Having the show in town is a great opportunity to experience something different from the Disneyfied fare… something quirky and delightfully, earnestly silly.

  2. I saw this show in London with the original (now current NY) cast and, like the reviewer, had an extremely difficult time understanding the characters during the opening scene. The London audience had no trouble and was rolling in the aisles from the get-go. I, on the other hand, sat there shaking my head, wondering what was so funny. The accents quickly seemed to become more moderate, almost as if they were intentionally strong in the beginning as a form of shorthand character development. While the first few jokes really are incomprehensible, stick with it and enjoy the ensuing hilarity.

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