The National Theatre is a British institution that stages some of the largest theatrical productions in the country. They also screen some productions in movie theatres later all over the world. Now they're offering a free stream of a play every week during the pandemic – the first this week is the 2011 production One Man, Two Guvnors.
Nicholas Hytner directs Richard Bean's adaptation of an Italian farce from 1743 called Servant of Two Masters. European farces from the 1700s and 1800s are the precursor of screwball comedies as we know them now.
Farce is about slapstick and coincidence where every character is more than a little nuts. Scratch that, they're seriously nuts! Instead of 1743 Italy, Bean transposes the setting to 1963 Brighton. This is the mythical Brighton of rockabilly pop, dirty postcards and dodgy dealers, a short line from London's East End gangland to the seaside front.
"One Man, Two Guvnors": The Most Farcical of Farces
James Corden heads a very British concoction of Sixties gangsters, Cockney slang and boxers who went to Public School. Corden plays Francis Henshall, a scatty skivvy who gets hired separately as a gofer by a gangster and an upper-class boxer on the run. The gangster is actually dead – it's his twin sister in disguise using his name to collect a debt so she can skip the country her boyfriend, who killed her brother. The upper-class twit who hired Francis is that boyfriend.
Francis doesn't know this, and the boxer and the sister don't know they've hired the same errand boy. And Francis has to keep the sister and the boxer from meeting up lest they discover his scam to get them both to pay him for the same job. He's so broke and lightheaded from hungry that he keeps confusing their orders. That doesn't help the sister, who's using her brother's pre-arranged marriage proposal of convenience to a Brighton gangster's daughter to collect on a debt her father owes her dead brother.
Corden also engages in some hilarious fourth wall-breaking interactions with the audience that even messes up the play in one instance. It's the type of unique, spontaneous mess that theatregoers both dread and secretly crave, just to see how the actors improvise their way out of it. The centerpiece is the climax of Act One where Francis has to serve lunch to both his bosses while keeping them hidden from each other. And he tries to steal some of their food for himself at the same time.
Of course there's a doddering waiter. There's always a doddering waiter. And another victim from the audience. All this and the most doddering waiter ever! I've never seen a play turn into near-total anarchy like this before. And Act Two is no less crazy. It's all terribly, hilariously cruel.
At 2 hours and 40 minutes, this is a pretty full evening at the theatre, beamed on your computer or your large screen TV if you have the capacity for it. Bean's script has dense, loony dialogue and knowing postmodern political commentary on class, gender, nostalgia and history. He even gives Corden a monologue that deconstructs the play's own genre and the nature of Commedia dell'arte itself. The production encompasses nearly 300 years of theatrical comedy and farce. But at heart, it's a crowd-pleasing good time.
One Man, Two Guvnors is streaming until April 9th.