STC are very savvy when it comes to bringing out a successful show that will have mass appeal to its subscriber base and maybe open their doors to a new audience. The National Theatre of Great Britain’s ‘One Man, Two Guvnors’ was a smart choice for their 2013 season and if the screaming of the 800 audience members in the Sydney Theatre was any indication, every player wins a prize in this production and that prize is great belly laugh.
This show has already done the rounds of England and Broadway and hit our shores in early April. Everyone I know who had seen it told me it was a must. I mean, every body. So I bit the bullet and I can certainly see why it’s a show to thoroughly enjoy. Based very closely on Carlo Goldoni’s ‘Servant of Two Masters’, playwright Richard Bean has given ‘One Man, Two Guvnors’ the English Music Hall/ Panto/Carry On makeover.
We begin with the pre-show enertainmnent of a 60’s style band, slightly a precursor to The Beatles in flavour, with original music devised by Grant Olding. And you just don’t see the washboard used as an instrument enough these days. The band then add to the soundscape of the play and jump up during quick scene changes and certain cast members join them at intervals, gaining huge support from the audience each time they emerge.
The play itself, as the title suggests, is based on the idea of our low status character, Francis Henshaw (Owain Arthur), lacking in food and intelligence in the style of the Harlequin from commedia dell’arte, finding himself in the employment of two bosses and the chaos that ensues as he tries to serve them both without each of them discovering the presence or identity of the other. Add in several sub-plots that involve deceit, romance, greed, lust, revenge and a generous helping of audience participation (and what is staged to feel like it), it’s a recipe for success.
Lead actor Arthur was superb in likeability, manipulating his audience and playing off their energy. He captured the essence of the 1960’s Britain reworking of the play with homage to the comedy popular at the time and bringing it into the contemporary age for his young and exuberant audience. Edward Bennett (as Stanley Stubbers) had some of the best moments with his English boarding school habits exposed, relishing in their brutality as if it was the most natural expression of masculinity and friendship but kudos to all the cast in executing a fresh and vibrant version of a classic play.
The audience probably most responded to the times the play exposed the facade of events and commented on itself, especially in response to the offer of a hummus sandwich by someone in the second row to Owain Arthur’s character Henshaw. The audience completely went with Arthur, even though his persona as ‘the actor and not the character’ in the play is really another character in itself.
The set and costumes, designed by Mark Thompson, filled the notoriously cavernous Sydney Theatre with a colour and brilliance and every corner of the stage was used effectively. I was sitting up the back in the balcony and never did I feel distanced from the action. As stated before, as audience were used as part of the action, we felt the whole theatre was the stage.
Director Nicholas Hytner (and revived by Adam Penford) with physical comedy director, Cal McCrystal have taken Bean’s excellent script and reinvented the clown for the modern stage. It’s a perfect blend of slapstick, audience interaction, wit and farce. Keep in mind, this play first opened in the National Theatre’s Lyttelton’s Theatre in May 2011. Two years have passed. Some references have been reinserted after their Broadway run (and a few extras for its Australian audience). How the cast can still give this play the freshness they do with the sheer joy of performing with such warmth on stage is a mystery and if they’re faking it, they’re utterly convincing.
Wherever you are in the world, if this play hits your doorstep, be sure to catch it, even if you’ve got to get two guvnors to buy you a ticket.
And I will never look at hummus in the same way.