By John Lombard
One Man Two Guvnors
By Richard Bean
Online 3 to 10 April
With theatres worldwide closed in coronavirus lockdown, England’s artistic bastion the National Theatre is sharing triumphs from its vault for free on YouTube.
The first play to stream is 2011’s One Man Two Guvnors, a fizzy farce set in the swinging sixties.
Richard Bean’s hilarious play updates the Commedia dell’Arte classic Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldoni. Bean spices the elaborate plot by making the monied patriarchs of the original into genteel mobsters.
James Corden won a well-deserved Tony for Best Actor for his performance as Henshall, a penniless skiffle player scraping by as muscle for a crook.
Henshall’s endless hunger drives him to take an extra gig with a sociopathic toff, not realising that his two masters are separated lovers hunting for each other.
Henshall’s juggling of tasks first disrupts the basic comforts of these guvnors like meals and ironed shirts, before his improvisations derail their lives more seriously.
But despite his ridiculous stuff-ups, our sympathy is always with this man who just wants to eat. By not taking proper care of their eager servant, the two masters invite chaos into their already twisty lives. Like all essential employees, Henshall is the secret Atlas holding up their world.
Director Nicholas Hytner tells the story with panache, wisely anchoring the comedy in aching longing, whether the torment of the lovers or Henshall’s rumbling belly.
The sense of time and place is extraordinary, with cockney accents, popping primary colour costumes and slight rattiness in set perfectly evoking 60s Brighton.
Corden’s performance is sublime: Henshall is vague but volatile, his confused squint contrasting with moments of bracing boldness. His slapstick has the scrambling energy of a silent movie hero. The famous dinner scene at the end of the first act is a superb showcase for Corden’s comic brilliance.
Corden’s best foils are his deranged posh master Stanley Stubbers (Oliver Chris) and crafty honeypot Dolly (Suzie Toase). Chris’ choices are surreal but his performance has an absolute conviction that makes it seductively believable. Toase meanwhile gets the plot scutwork, dragging Henshall to a happy ending, but gives the part a captivating nous that wins the audience’s head and heart.
The rest of the cast are sublime, with irresistible energy, immaculate timing and crafty character observation.
Part of the delight of live theatre is the feeling of community, and the visible presence of an engaged audience in this recording is a welcome treat for those of us confined to home. The performance even goes hilariously wrong at one point, further capturing the magic. This excellent production has extra savour because it is now a nostalgic reminder of the vanished world of only a month ago.
Skiffle band The Craze are the cherry on top of the sundae, with their musical interludes adding tremendously to the sense of fun and place.
The National Theatre’s One Man Two Guvnors is a banquet of entertainment. In these lean and dreary times, serving it up for free is an act of generosity that Henshall himself would applaud.