It’s dangerous, sometimes, to go and see something that arrives trailing clouds of hype. I booked to see One Man, Two Guvnors at the Lowry months ago – if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have got a ticket, the entire run is sold out – right after it opened at the National Theatre to the kind of reviews that give publicists multiple orgasms. Word of mouth has also been very strong, several friends saw the National Theatre Live screening a month or so ago and raved about it, it’s about to transfer into the West End, and there’s talk of it going to Broadway next year. Nobody, it seems, has a bad word to say about it, to the point where it’s hard not to wonder whether it can possibly be as good as “everyone” says it is.
Well, yes, it really is that good. It’s a slick, expertly-performed, expertly-directed, shamelessly ingratiating, and sometimes shamelessly manipulative show that sets out only to give you a good time and succeeds brilliantly, which of course is the hardest thing of all to achieve. Do I have any quibbles? Not really. There are two pieces of audience interaction in the first half that are pre-planned and involve planted cast members (who are revealed at the curtain call when they take a bow), and it says something for the cast’s expertise that you can’t tell the plants from the genuine volunteers who are called to the stage elsewhere in the first act (if you dislike audience participation, don’t sit in the front row). Part of me finds that kind of rehearsed spontaneity unpleasantly manipulative and quite off-putting, but those two sequences are so funny (and performed with such conviction by the cast members involved) that I find myself not really caring much about what I’d usually view as almost an ethical lapse. And nothing in the second act quite matches the delirious hysteria of the final scene of the first, but that simply means that the second act is “merely” very, very, very funny, as opposed to so funny that you end up in actual physical pain from laughing so hard.
The foundations, of course, are solid: the source play by Goldoni is hilarious to begin with, and Richard Bean’s smart, quick-witted adaptation never lets more than about 45 seconds pass before another joke shows up (the plot defies description, so I’m not going to attempt to summarise it – it’s a contemporary-ish farce that follows the conventions of commedia dell’arte, in which stock characters are moved around a plot by the playwright more or less in the manner of pieces on a chessboard). The scenes are interspersed with songs and specialty musical sequences performed by a skiffle/rock band called The Craze, sometimes with the help of members of the cast; this could easily have been excruciating, but they’re terrific. A CD of the show’s music is available in the lobby and online from the National Theatre (but, oddly, apparently not anywhere else) – yes, this play has a cast recording of sorts, and yes, I have ordered it. The sets – by Mark Thompson – are a riotous celebration of saucy seaside postcards, perfectly evoking the 1963 Brighton setting, and director Nicholas Hytner keeps the pace up admirably, so that you barely have time to catch your breath before the next laugh hits. Again, not an easy trick.
And then there’s the cast, and there isn’t a weak link anywhere among them. Suzie Toase is a particular standout, and not just because of her bra’s spectacular (I assume) underwiring (sorry); her character is the funniest feminist bookkeeper you’re ever likely to encounter (this is the third show, incidentally, in which I’ve seen Ms. Toase give a brilliant comic performance – she was a magnificent, definitive Red Ridinghood in the Royal Opera House’s Into the Woods, and she was both funny and quietly heartbreaking as the dowdy Maureen in Victoria Wood’s Talent at the Menier Chocolate Factory. She’s someone to watch), and she lights up the stage whenever she appears. It’s not, though, as if anyone else in the cast is any less brilliant. Everybody in this cast, down to the last member of the ensemble, is working at the top of their game.
At the centre of it all, there’s James Corden as the titular One Man who has Two Guvnors (the character, according to the conventions of commedia dell’arte, is a Harlequin, so of course Mark Thompson costumes him in a check tweed suit). Corden is often funny and charming on television, but his performance here is a revelation. He works the audience like a true vaudevillian, his timing is masterful, and his physical comedy is often breathtakingly funny (in the opening scene he somersaults backwards over an armchair, and that’s one of his simpler pieces of business). He’s great – hammier than the delicatessen counter at Tesco, particularly when he’s pleading with the audience for someone to give him a sandwich, but that kind of hamminess, these days, is becoming a lost art. There’s more than a touch of Zero Mostel about him, and that’s not something you’d suspect from his most popular TV work. But then, this isn’t simply a case of a TV star doing good work in the theatre. It’s a genuine theatrical star turn, a dazzling old-fashioned comic tour-de-force, and in about ten years, he has to play Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
Of course, all of this gushing is moot if you haven’t already booked your ticket for the touring engagements. This show is a huge success, and deservedly so. I’m picky – really picky – and I can’t find any holes to pick. And that, trust me, never happens.