One show, too many laughs to count

Loves sweet dream: Francis, in the generous shape of James Corden, whispers sweet nothings, as opposed to his usual nothings, to the love of his life Dolly, delightfully played by Suzie Toase.

One Man, Two Govnors

New Alexandra Theatre

*****

ANYONE who fails to become helpless with laughter at least once in this National Theatre production will probably be leaving in a box.

It is glorious, unadulterated, remarkably silly, witty, irreverent, brilliant, mad, slapstick, banal, sophisticated, risqué, good clean fun.

The most fun had in a theatre for years in fact.  There are touches of Bottom, of Black Adder, Fawlty Towers, Benny Hill, Carry On and panto all rolled into a wonderful script from Richard Bean which is all brought to life by a faultless cast led by James Corden as Frances Henshall, the hapless catalyst for endless confusion and disaster.

For those who are interested, it is based on the 1746 play The Servant of Two Masters by Venetian playwright Carlo Goldini, which, possibly, may have lost, or even gained, just a tad in the translation although, to be fair, the basic plot is still there and Cordon's check suit is perhaps paying homage to his part's original character of Truffaldino, the Harlequin comic servant of the Italian Commedia dell'Arte tradition.

The action has moved from Venice to the Brighton of 1963 with old time villain Charlie “The Duck” Clench (Fred Ridgeway) marrying his brainless daughter Pauline (Claire Lams) off to aspiring act-ore, friends, Romans, countrymen and all that Alan Dangle, (Daniel Rigby) the son of Charlie's bent solicitor Harry Dangle (Martyn Ellis). With bookkeeper Dolly (Suzie Toase), who is in pursuit of a man, notably Francis keeping everyone, and the family skeletons, in order.  

Saying it with flowers, or at least one flower, is our hero Francis on the lovelorn trail of Dolly

Pauline was to have married her fiancée, the homosexual gangster Roscoe Crabbe, as a favour to his father, except Roscoe's been murdered by his twin sister's boyfriend so Alan has been brought of the bench as a sort of sub groom so the sausage rolls don't go to waste.

Meanwhile the twin sister Rachel (Jemima Hooper) is disguised as her brother, who in rising from the dead in two days has beaten the previous world record by a day apparently, and is seeking her murdering boyfriend, an upper class twit called Stanley Stubbers (Oliver Chris) not for revenge but to escape to Austrailia, even though they don't like Opera (don't ask – just think Opera house), and both end up employing Francis as their man without knowing he is working independently for both of them at the same time. The Two Masters bit. Got it. Don't worry it doesn't really matter. Knowing what is going on is a bit of a luxury in this one.

The result is high class farce with double entendres, visual gags galore, one liners at every turn, knees and boots in groins, a one man fight from Corden,  fingers in eyes and some of the most imaginative decriptions ever heard on stage,.

Our jolly, pervy, ex-public school toff Stanley, talking about the rather buxom bookkeeper  Dolly going to Majorca alone, advises us: “You can't trust a Spaniard alone with a Swiss roll.” That's one to get imaginations turning.

Or for despair how about feeling like “a floral clock in winter” and we are also enlightened upon the speed of love passing through marriage and the usefulness, or otherwise of nuns and their component parts.

We even have Dolly telling us, this is 1963 remember, how within 20 years she predicts we will have a woman prime minister who will bring equality and justice for all. That went down particularly well.

Nor do the audience escape unscathed with two being dragged up to move a heavy trunk and another – a plant in this case – employed at the end of the first act in a restaurant scene where Corden is doling out food to his two employers in separate rooms while stashing away as much as he can for himself in a soup tureen she is holding, hiding her behind a statue between courses. She ends up on fire which is as good a reason as any to take a break I suppose.

Waiter Alfie, (Tom Edden), 86 on his first day and unsteady on his feet, hands, or indeed any other bit, is a slow moving star in the scene even getting smashed straight through the scenery by an opening door. I suspect Tom and half the cast could hold a best vruises competition at the end of each performance.

Excuses are not a strong point in Francis' armoury as he tries to explain away som indiscretion to Rachel, Jemimia Rooper, who is dressed as her twin brother Roscoe

The audience are engaged regularly with Corden at one point getting involved in a long conversation after asking if anyone had a sandwich he could have which brought forth offers of chocolates, crisps, a humus sandwich and a ham and cucumber bagette.

Henshall is a failed washboard player in a skiffle band which gives us a chance to have a skiffle band both on stage and providing all the music.

A nice touch is a real 1960s dance hall setting before the start and during the interval with the The Craze, a modern beat combo with drums, two guitars and bass, playing in true skiffile style, complete with washboard, then, in the interval, early 60s rock to get those audience feet atapping.

Just to add to the novelty during scene changes Corden appears on the xylophone, Oliver Chris comes on to play car horns and Trevor Laird, who plays Lloyd Boatang, a celebrity and favourite of the gentlemen of Parkhurst apparently, who gives us a touch of calypso on the steel drums.

The timing throughout is superb with Corden, who is remarkably agile for such a . . .  comfortable frame, holding the audience in the palm of his hand, Chris striding through his lines with military, or at least OTC, precision and Rigby a wonderfully ham, aspiring Thespian leaping into actorial position before every Olivieresque utterance while the rest never miss a beat or waste a line. Sustained comedy is hard at this level and they made it look oh, so easy

Nicholas Hytner's direction keeps up a cracking pace and in truth, at three hours long including the 15 minute interval, this is one that feels far too short.

Whether this is pantomime for adults, Carry on Carlo, a modernisation of the Commedia dell'Arte tradition or any other artistic of academic description you can think off matters not a jot. It is glorious, wonderful, unmissable and uniquely British fun. To 22-10-11.

Roger Clarke

Master Class of Mayhem

*****

RICHARD BEANS masterful adaptation of Carlo Goldini's The Servant of Two Masters steamrolled into Birmingham last night to a packed and very vocal house. It did not disappoint.  

The original play, written in 1746, was a late example of Commedia Dell ‘ Arte - a form of theatre based on highly improvised observations of clearly defined society ‘characters' that an audience could immediately relate to.

Francis feels the need to beat himself up about the dilemmas surrounding his life with that most British of weapons - a dustbin lid

Bumbling servants, roguish masters, lily livered lovers, plotting maids, foppish posh gents - all the ingredients were there and openly ripe for parody. There were no central ‘heroes' , more an assortment of well drawn characters and situations.

Adaptor Richard Bean has propelled the story forward in time to 1963 - gaining more accessibility for a modern audience but losing none of the original style or intention. This tour comes on the back of the play's world premiere at The Lyttleton Theatre in May 2011. 

Essentially, the story revolves around an unemployed man suddenly finding himself with two jobs. As he struggles to multi - task (as most men apparently do)he meets an array of diverse characters , each beautifully drawn out. A ‘nice but dim' Sloane ranger, a fantastically bumbling and ancient Waiter, a thrusting thespian, a red faced Latin quoting lawyer , a ballsy strumpet, a not so bright daughter, a Calypso lover and a lady in a man's suit make up a rogues gallery of the highest (and funniest) order. 

In these celebrity obsessed times, it can't be denied that a huge draw of this play is it's star - James Corden. The run has all but sold out and that has to be largely down to the pulling power of this likeable TV comedian. A shame, because the play stands on it own on every level but even good plays need help, it seems, to sell tickets these days.  All too often, ‘stars' are drafted in to fill seats but they are actually miscast or out of their depth in the role.

PIN POINT TIMING

This is far from the case here. Corden is mesmorising as the laddish central character, Francis Henshall. He fills every second of stage time with spot on delivery, pin point comic timing and moments of physical comedy that have the audience in stitches. His ‘self beating' scene is disturbingly funny. On top of all that, is his genuine rapport with the audience who begin on his side and stay there until the end. 

This is, however, no one man show, performances across the board are outstanding. Daniel Rigby (Alan Dangle) manages to encapsulate every perception of a ‘luvvie Actor' - postulating and over annunciating at every opportunity. Oliver Chris as posher than Pimms yuppie, Stanley Stubbers, is impeccable and stylishly funny. . Tom Edden (Alfie) plays the boggle eyed, permanently confused, doddering old waiter to perfection - forever being hit on the head with swinging doors, bumping into walls and turning up his pace maker . . . pure Norman Wisdom and no worse for that. Suzie Toase (Dolly), Trevor Laird (Lloyd) Fred Ridgeway (Charlie ), Claire Lams (Pauline ), Martyn Ellis (Harry),Jemima Rooper (Rachel)and David Benson (Gareth ) are equally strong in cast with no weak links. 

As well as classic trouser dropping, door banging farce, the play delivers a nod to pantomime. Audience members come onstage to be gently humiliated - all handled with great skill by Corden. 

Set changes were covered cleverly using a live band to fill the gaps. Main characters also delivered their own party pieces - from xylophone playing to car horn bipping - whilst the set was changed behind them. An Innovative and thoroughly entertaining use of ‘dead time' 

This is theatre of the highest standard. Laugh out loud funny, beautifully acted and sharply written. If you are going , you are in for a treat. If you are thinking about it, don't leave it too long. Tickets are virtually gone. 

One Man , Two Govnors is a National Theatre production, Directed by Nicholas Hyntner. It runs until Saturday October 22nd.

Tom Roberts

One man . . . THREE reviews

****

WHEN I was heading for my seat in the dress circle at the Alex, shoulder-to-shoulder with eager customers, and a buzz in the air,it was pretty obvious we were in for a special night. And so it proved.

This sell-out show was a hoot from start to finish, with more audience participation than your average pantomime, and whatever the plot was didn't really matter.

It's tempting to call Richard Bean's adaptation of Carlo Goldoni's classic Italian tale, The Servant of Two Masters, a one man show, because James Corden gives an incredible performance throughout and rarely seems to be off the stage...even when a 'double' is racing around in one scene.

But the star, of Gavin and Stacey fame, would be the first to admit that he is helped by a top-notch cast in a show packed with humour, slap-stick, sex and drama.

 Corden plays Francis Henshall, trying to satisfy two bosses in 1960s Brighton, and landing in all kind of scrapes....not least of which involve some members of the audience.

Was the young lady lured on stage from the stalls a genuine customer, for instance. Most of us thought so and gasped at some of her tricky moments, but when she was suddenly covered from head to foot in thick foam it was fair to assume she was a 'plant'. Clever stuff.

During the cooking scene there were amazing contributions from Tom Edden as the ancient waiter, Alfie, knocked from pillar to post as he staggered through in and out kitchen doors.

Top marks, too, for Fred Ridgeway (Charlie 'The Duck' Clench), Jemima Rooper (Rachel Crabbe), Trevor Laird (Lloyd Boateng), Daniel Rigby (Alan Dangle), busty Suzie Toase (Dolly) and Martyn Ellis (Harry Dangle). To 22-10-11.

 Paul Marston

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