Review: One Man, Two Guvnors, Theatre Royal, by Alan Geary
Everything we've already heard about the brilliance of this production turns out to be true. It really is outstanding. Obviously, at this stage of the year, it automatically goes towards your Post theatre critic's "Best Ten Shows of 2013" list. But one suspects it might still be on that list come December.
Richard Bean's One Man, Two Guvnors is the latest of many adaptations of The Servant of Two Masters, Goldoni's 1746 comedy set in Venice. Bean changes names and some of the plot detail; and, in an inspired move, relocates the action to Brighton in 1963. This is London's gangland by the sea.
But, directed by Nicholas Hytner, this version doesn't turn its back on the spirit of the original one iota.
There's a little of the Victorian melodrama about it; more importantly though, the thwarted lovers, and the girl unconvincingly disguised as her brother remind us more of a Shakespearean comedy; there's even thematic depth and a certain beauty in some of the fast and furious text. And it's also firmly embedded in the continental comedic tradition whereby the wily servant gets one over on his master – in this case, of course, his two masters.
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Rufus Hound's Henshall is a triumph. The performance ranges from outlandishly energetic physical comedy and cunning slow realisations to ad-libbing with the audience, and much more. The show's highly pantomimic in places: a lot of the characters step down-stage to confide in the audience, and there's a lot of broad audience involvement on stage, some, not all, of it surely bogus.
There's a remarkable depth in the casting. Some of the biggest laughs and best moments are contributed by Peter Caulfied as Alfie, an 87-year-old waiter with a pace maker. He's an appallingly non-PC caricature as he gets smacked about, banged with doors, and so on. It's a wonderful line when we're informed by his colleague "It's his first day".
The scenery – a tall and tasteless hotel interior and some jokey Brighton exteriors with a postcard feel to them – adds a lot of fun to the evening. So does the four-man semi-skiffle group – 1963 is a bit late for the real thing – and, near the end, a three-girl line-up.
To be fair, pace and inventiveness sag a little bit after the break – the food-serving scene is the undoubted comedic core – but from one end to the other this production delivers first-class entertainment and more.
One Man, Two Guvnors is at the Theatre Royal till Saturday, 2nd February