One Man, Two Guvnors lands in Australia with a whopper of a reputation to live up to. The play – adapted by British playwright Richard Bean from an 18th-century farce by Italian Carlo Goldoni – has racked up big laughs, big bucks and some pretty big heapings of praise since its debut on the West End in 2011. The Guardian went five-stars ga-ga for the original production; the New York Times gushed all over the thing when it set up shop in Broadway. It was silly, they said, and joyous, and hilarious, and slapstick and packed full of old-fashioned British innuendo – the kind of sticky stuff you’d expect to slip from Julian Clary’s lips on an overnight trip to boarding school. It was great.
And hey, they were right.
The story itself is a bit of a thin hanger (though a twisty one to be fair) – a fun farcical excuse for mixed-identity running-between-two-rooms Mrs-Doubtfire-style shenanigans. It’s the ’60s, it’s Brighton, and a bloke named Francis Henshall somehow ends up with two bosses (guvnors). One’s a gangster (well, a gangster’s sister dressed as her dead brother) and the other is a public-school toff by the name of Stanley Stubbers. The thing is, Stubbers and the gangster’s sister are in love and planning to elope, but neither knows they’re in Brighton, or that they’ve just employed the same man, or that he has two guvnors. Add to the mix a buxom love interest for Frances and a thick-as-a-double-brick-wall young Brighton gal named Pauline Clench (a brilliantly big-eyed and bright-lipped Kellie Shirley who manages a laugh out of every “I don’t understand!”)
So yes, there are capers. And director Nicholas Hytner has employed some rather brilliant devices in conveying them – a screwball chase through the streets of Brighton is handled spectacularly. The four guys doing the great little music hall routine when you enter will be back, so don’t fret when they move off the stage. And other characters will join them. And, famously by now, you’ll want to avoid the front few rows if you’re shy. There will be participation.
Brean's writing is incredibly sharp, full of as many listen-close-or-you’ll-miss-it one-liners as the more obvious winking, slapstick stuff. The best zingers go to Stubbers, played here by Edward Bennett as a lanky, smarmy public-school prat (“Soggy biscuits,” “First names are for girls and Norwegians”). But the play ultimately belongs to Francis, as it did when it played in the UK and the US.
Our Francis is Owain Arthur, who took over the role from James Corden last year on the West End. We haven’t seen Corden in the role, but Time Out New York wrote in their review: “Not enough praise can be heaped on Corden’s physical genius, whether trying to lift an improbably heavy trunk, getting into a knock-down, drag-out fight with himself or dragooning audience volunteers into the madness.”
Well: ditto Arthur. This hefty anchor of the show delivers what must be one of the most crazed, energetic and charming performances we’ve seen on the stage in yonks; he’s part child, part confidence man, part rodeo clown, all sweat.
You’ll be happily coaxed onto stage to join in the madness when he fixes his shimmering eyes on you.