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TRCH David Suchet

One Man, Two Guv'nors

28 January 15 words: Gareth Morgan
The National Theatre serve up a slapstick gag fest of one minder caught between two dodgy guvnors

One Man and Two Guvnors - Jasmyn Banks, Edward Hancock, Gavin Spokes, Derek Elroy and Norman Pace photo by Pamela Raith.

The National Theatre bucks the trend of most other stages in the country: it doesn't produce an annual pantomime, possibly to do with the amount of Arts Council funding it receives and is therefore not reliant on the bums on seats/ticket money in coffers this provides for the others. However, in Richard Bean's One Man, Two Guvnors, an adaptation of Carlo Goldoni's eighteenth century farce A Servant of Two Masters, they have as near as dammit made one, complete with custard pies, audience participation and happy endings.

It's 1963 Brighton and the quiet of the peaceful seaside town is shattered by some new arrivals. The mayhem is centred on Francis Henshall, minder to London gangster Roscoe Crabbe who has come down in search of money owed him by dodgy scrap dealer Charlie Clench. Roscoe is also promised to Clench's daughter, Pauline, who in turn is in love with local actor Alan. However, the plot thickens as Roscoe isn't really Roscoe - he/she's Rachel in disguise. Roscoe's been killed by her boyfriend Stanley, also absconded to Brighton although separately and lodging in the same pub. Francis, short on cash himself, takes a second job as Stanley's batman, causing the portly prankster to suffer all sorts of confusion. This is also an issue for the audience, managing to understand what is most of act one.

The close of the act, where Francis, his mismatched chequered suit already covered in tomato soup, must serve dinner to both "guvnors", with the help of doddering octogenarian Alfie, which has suitably calamitous results involving fire extinguishers, a stage manager and a crêpe suzette. The plot gallops on at a pace after this but the show feels as if it's shot its wad early as it never recovers from the dinner scene and this climax, which sets the audience a chatter for the whole of the interval.

One Man and two Guvnors - photo by Pamela Raith

With so much of the play centred on the misadventures of Francis, praise must go to Gavin Spokes who plays him. His remarks, seemingly off the cuff, to audience and corpsing co-performers are razor sharp and his physicality in the slapstick set pieces, directed by Physical Comedy Director Cal McCrystal, is excellent.

The other stand out performances, for me, was Patrick Warner as the adorably foppish Stanley; also providing the highlight of the night by referring to Francis' penis as a "skin chimney", and Alicia Davies as both besotted Rachel and in disguise as thuggish Roscoe. Edward Hancock's doomed lover actor Alan however became increasingly annoying in his thrusts and lunges and David Verrey, as solicitor and Alan's father Harry, swallowed his lines especially his longer, more verbose speeches. The other high point was The Craze, a skiffle four piece who provide the pre-show scene setting and covered the scene changes with tight Beatles-esque ealry sixties groove, although a greater level of integration of their role into the show and the narrative would have made a better use of these talented musicians.

Overall, the play is very middle England: Len Hutton, lamb cutlets and Woolworths, but this carry on has a less likeable edge. The comedy Irish accents and dancing used by Francis' alter ego Paddy along with the marginalised role of the two black cast members and their quite bizarre steel drum solo smacked of jingoism. It was uncomfortable in these moments whilst the overwhelming white audience guffawed. This felt like Daily Express ribaldry and Richard Bean's script, whilst undoubtedly accomplished, could have been cleverer and less blue in how the elements of the comedy came together.

For me, One Man, Two Guvnors wasn't the rip-roaring laugh generator I'd hoped for after having seen the glowing reviews it has garnered over the last few years. Perhaps as someone not of the Carry On generation this wasn't a show designed for me (Francis does ask bitterly if there are any smart arses in the audience - I, unashamedly, am) and I wasn't wowed by the apparent step up that is the National Theatre - I've seen more far accomplished and thought through work at the Playhouse or Lakeside. I'm glad the National does tour work and that the huge swaths of the audience loved this, but it wasn’t for me. Please send us more from the Southbank so we can have a chance to see the other work that's being produced there and we can have our stake in our National Theatre - we're paying for it.

One Man, Two Guvnors is at the Theatre Royal until Saturday 31 January 2015.?

Theatre Royal Concert Hall website


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