When Richard Bean took Goldoni’s classic Commedia dell’ Arte, ‘Servant to Two Masters’, and changed it from an 18th century Italian comedy to 1960s Brighton with the main characters East End gangsters, he could never have imagined what a hit it would turn out to be.
After a record breaking West End run, the National Theatre production of Bean’s re-write, ‘One Man Two Guvnors’ is now touring to packed houses.
It is hard to describe in one word what sort of play this is. It opens with a Lonnie Donegan style skiffle group called The Craze (gangsters, remember) who reappear at regular intervals between scene changes.
There are short vignettes on xylophone, reggae with bongos and a girl trio looking like The Beverly Sisters and sounding like The Stargazers.
The result is an amazing, frenzied mixture of British music hall, Ealing comedy with sharp one-liners, panto and hilarious slapstick.
Shaun Williamson and Emma Barton may have got the headlines, both being from Eastenders, but the true star is undoubtedly LIPA protégé, Gavin Spokes, who is brilliant as Francis Henshall, taking over from James Corden, of Gavin and Stacey fame, for whom the part was written. The amount of energy and enthusiasm Spokes puts into the role is daunting.
Henshall unwittingly becomes minder to two guvnors. The first is Rachel Crabbe who is masquerading as her twin brother who is betrothed to marry Pauline (Jasmyn Banks), daughter of gangster Charlie ‘The Duck’ Clench (Shaun Williamson).
His second guvnor is poncey toff, Stanley Stubbers (Patrick Warner), the man who murdered Rachel’s brother.
Michael Dylan gets battered from all quarters as the elderly, shaking waiter, Alfie. That he survives unharmed is a testimony to the work of Cal McCrystal, who organised the incredibly slick physical comedy
Edward Hancock hams it up as wannabe actor, Alan, and David Verrey is his menacing Dad. The aforementioned Emma Barton plays Charlie’s moll, Dolly.
The play’s finest moments were Henshall’s interaction with the audience. When he began a dialogue about a sandwich with some unsuspecting chap in the front seats, it ends with everyone on the theatre convulsed with laughter and Henshall screaming at them from the stage, ‘this isn’t pantomime, it’s the bloody National Theatre’, as the rest of the cast onstage corpse into hysterics.
As for what happens when a woman from the audience is brought onstage to help serve dinners – you’ll have to see it for yourself.
The acting is top class, as it has to be considering the speed at which everything happens. I constantly laugh out loud, an experience which doesn’t happen to me often in the theatre.
It runs until Saturday. Whatever you do, don’t miss this great comedy.