rcherl, Francis and Stanley

Gavin Spokes as Francis with his two guvnors, Rachel, Alicia Davies and Stanley, Patrick Warner  Pictures: Hugo Glendinning

One Man, Two Guvnors

Birmingham Hippodrome

*****

WE have a penchant for the loony end of humour, the plain daft, the congenitally silly, the ridiculously eccentric; how else do you explain the Goons, Monty Python, Black Adder, Fawlty Towers or that most British example of theatrical barminess, the pantomime.

One Man Two Guvnors is now an established part of that glorious tradition, a play of pure, unadulterated lunacy.

Richard Bean’s script, based on Carlo Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Sean Williamson as CharlieMasters – itself a very funny play – is set in Brighton in the 1960s and must have worked wonders for The Cricketers pub in the Lanes in Brighton where much of the play is set.

Incidentally, the pub also featured heavily in Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock.

The plot, and yes there is one, is simple with Francis Henshall, played by Gavin Spokes, a mindless minder, finding himself employed by two bosses, Rachel, played by Alicia Davies, a young woman disguised as her gangster, and very dead, twin brother and Stanley, played by Patrick Warner, her lover and gold plated, public school upper class twit of the year contender, who killed her brother and is now in hiding in Brighton.

Charlie "The Duck" Clench, played by Shaun Williamson

Stanley knows nothing of the cross dressing and neither knows about the whereabouts of the other so throw in a dodgy solicitor in the rather rotund shape of Harry Dangle, played by David Verrey, an even dodgier scrap dealer in the form of intellectually challenged, as in as a plank, Charlie “the Duck” Clench, played by EastEnders’ Shaun Williamson, and Charlie’s daughter Pauline, played by Jasmyn Banks, who makes Charlie look genius level and who was due to marry Rachel’s dead brother Roscoe in a less than kosher deal to hide his homosexuality . . . and the propensity for confusion and chaos increases at an alarming rate.

Then as the audience gets its head around that lot we have Alan Dangle, played theatrically by Edward Hancock, son of dodgy Harry, who wants to be and believes he is an . . . act-tore and could not sneeze without turning it into a dramatic Shakespearean soliloquy full of waving arms and ham.

He is in love with Pauline and was free to marry her again when her betrothed left to meet his maker – that is until the dead gangster in the form of Rachel reappears. And then, for no apparent reason, we have northern Dolly, played by Emma Barton, who works for Charlie, all push up bra and beehive hair do, who is the love interest for Francis - remember him? – as well as Lloyd, played by Derek Elroy, Charlie’s mate, as in cell, who now runs The Cricketers after graduating as a chef, at her majesty’s pleasure, from Parkhurst.

Add in an excellent four piece neatly suited band – cum – skiffle group, complete with washboard, The Craze, who could be time travellers from the early 60s, who entertain the audience before the show,during the interval, and to cover scene changes, with guests from the cast – Francis on vibes, Stanley on car horns, Lloyd on steel drum and so on – and you know this is a play like no other.

But as the brilliant Gavin Spokes tells an audience member after a discussion about sandwiches, which has nothing to do with the script, plot or anything else “This is a National Theatre Production . . . not a pantomime!”. Well the first part was right, but as for the rest . . .

To get so much chaos into a show with so much Emma Barton as Dollyviolent slapstick needs incredible timing which in turn takes endless rehearsal.

The meal scene when Francis is trying to serve his two masters in opposite rooms in The Cricketers with neither knowing he is there is a comic gem, with the 83-year-old, shaky, deaf waiter Alfie, running on batteries from his pacemaker, and wonderfully played by Michael Dylan, only adding to the mayhem.

And when Francis drags up some poor soul from the audience – two more had been dragged up earlier to help move luggage – pandemonium is guaranteed.

Emma Barton as northerner Dolly enticed be a promise of Majorca

Dylan has the ability to look like the living dead, bend backwards at 90 degrees, slide down walls and even manages to be laid low by a full bloodied straight drive to the chin from a cricket bat by Stanley. The timing on that one to make it look realistic has to be perfect . . . either that or you will get through an awful lot of Alfies.

It is a very physical play, there is a scene where Francis has an argument with himself that develops into a fight rolling around the stage which has to be exhausing,and that after going over the back of a chair trying to catch sweets thrown in the air, and there are plenty of punches and kicks among the dangly bits to make every gent in the audience wince at times.

Above all though, it is glorious, unbridled fun. You don’t need to think or analyse - even a reasonably bright house brick can follow what is going on - you just sit back and laugh, or wince or even groan as Frances, with no money and Olympic standard hunger pangs, mixes his own drink.

Don’t be fooled though. It might be as mad as a whole street of hatters, but it is also a magnificent piece of theatre with some lovely touches - the women dragged from the audience and left a wreck, banging into the door as she is led off, for example - and it is a production which is remarkably clever in its execution demanding split second timing from its superb cast from ensemble to stars.

The original production was directed by Nicholas Hytner and choreographer Adam Penford has taken over directing duties for the tour with credit due as well to Cal McCrystal the physical comedy director as well as Mark Thompson for his effective simple sets ranging from The Lanes in Brighton to the pier, the Clench house and The Cricketers dining rooms.

If laughter really was the best medicine then this show could cure anything and you would never be ill again. To 31-05-14.

Roger Clarke

26-05-14 

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