Monday, July 9, 2012

NT Live: One Man, Two Guvnors

The UK National Theatre's "NT Live" series of cinema simulcasts is a glorious thing.  But I struggle to get up in time for matinees, which they invariably are. Having missed Version 1 of "Frankenstein" (starring Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch) by dint of not paying attention, and then Version 2 (starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller) by virtue of sleeping late (which *is* a virtue, unless you've already paid for your tickets, which I had), I was damned if I was going to miss the wildly successful "One Man Two Guvnors" as well. Except, inexplicably, the Dendy Canberra was not showing it. Fending off a vague conviction that this was all my fault for not making up the numbers for either "Frankenstein", I resolved to venture interstate.  And so I found myself in the Empire Cinema Bowral, in the flattering and increasingly rare situation of significantly lowering the average age of the audience. The place was packed.

As anyone who's heard of this show already knows, it's Richard Bean's re-vamp of Goldoni's "Servant of Two Masters", set in 1950's Brighton.  Goldoni seems to invite this treatment - vide "The Venetian Twins".  It is, indeed, another "twin" plot - though as the twins in this case are brother and sister, and much is made of the fact that while extremely similar in appearance, they therefore cannot actually be "identical". 

The twins are Rachel and Roscoe; Roscoe, an East End gangster,  has been killed in a nightclub fight before the action begins by  Lord Flashheart from Blackadder  Stanley Stubbers.  It turns out Stanley and Rachel are engaged, but Stanley has fled into hiding. Rachel disguises herself as her dead brother, as you do, in order to collect on a large debt owed to him by Charlie Clench (an incredibly familiar Fred Ridgeway), which will set them up for life, or at least a move to Australia (a running, and apprarently hilarious, joke). Roscoe was supposed to be marrying Charlie's daughter, the vacuous Pauline (Claire Lams), as beard; I've forgotten why she was supposed to be marrying him, but it doesn't matter except that she's madly in love with the asinine Alan Dangle (a brilliantly po-faced Daniel Rigby), son of the family solicitor and an aspiring Ack-Tor, who has some of the best lines in the play, usually in the form of mad non-sequiturs. 

Amidst all of this we find that Billy Bunter, checked suit and all, has grown up to become Francis Henshall, who finds himself via various plot devices working for both Roscoe and Stanley, and trying to keep each from discovering the existence of the other - which is necessary, or the whole plot collapses, but difficult - because Henshall (James Corden) is a gluttonous idiot.

I digress, but then so does the whole play, and the plot is barely relevant, serving only as the most nominal framework for a serious of hilarious slapstick sketches, outrageous characters and brilliant firecracker dialogue.  There's some very funny ad libbing, and a lot more of what seems like very funny ad libbing but on closer inspection is not - the genius of Corden (and Oliver Chris) is that this seems absolutely fresh until the moment they let you know that it isn't.  The play lampoons itself as much as anything else: Henshall/Corden lurches through the fourth wall and back again, anachronisms are archly lampshaded; the audience is neatly manipulated into complicity.  This is very, very, very funny stuff, and as the credits roll you'll realise that its even cleverer than you thought.

There are a few quibbles: tiny Jemima Rooper, dragged up as "Roscoe" is not remotely convincing as a man, which is disappointing casting because Oliver Chris is so tall that a much more substantial woman could easily have been cast opposite.  The ending drags a bit, but the rest of the play is so hectic that it's only by comparison (the way 80 kmph seems like a snail's pace when you re-enter city limits and decelerate from 130  110).  There are holes in the plot you could drive the Starship Enterprise through - just pay no attention and enjoy the ride.  If you're not already suspending disbelief you've come to the wrong place.

The smaller roles are also worth a mention, in particular Alfie the octogenarian waiter on his first day at work, played by Tom Edden channelling Marty Feldman; and Susie Toase as a sort of feminist Sabrina, Henshall's love interest (explained to us in Commedia del Arte terms at the beginning of Act 2).

The show is full of Easter eggs and unexpected delights.  Henshall, we discover, has only picked up "heavy" work because Roscoe wanted to stop him busking, after his sacking from a skiffle band.  So the scene changes are disguised by numbers from said skiffle band ("the Craze") especially written for this production.  And after the opening set, each number thereafter features a cast member - Henshall providing remarkably facile on glockenspiel; Trevor Laird getting right into steel drums, Martyn Ellis clearly highly experienced on ukelele, an Andrews Sisters pastiche from the three female leads, Oliver Chris a tad tentative on a choir of klaxons, and everyone's favorite, a straightfaced Daniel Rigby (Alan), playing percussion on his bare chest.
Another jewel is the peek backstage at interval by the National Theatre compere.

As I mentioned, it flags a bit at the end, but after three hours, we all did.  Tying these mad ends up was never going to be as fun as the unravelling.  But they do need tying, and it's a satisfactory and settling ending.

I believe this has transferred from the West End to Broadway now, and the cast has largely turned over; I'd be fascinated to know if Owain Arthur has brought the same sort of flubbering genius to the character of Henshall (that's not a real word, but I don't think there is one).  If NT Live reprises this, do not miss it.  And I hope the Canberra Dendy has not dropped its particpation in the NT Live programme, because there is some good stuff scheduled later in the year.

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