The British import One Man, Two Guvnors — a larf-out-loud theatrical hubbub just as sparkling and marvelous as rapturous London reviews have promised — includes a helpful note in the playbill connecting commedia dell’arte of the 16th?18th centuries, British pantomimes and music hall revues of the 19th and early to mid-20th centuries, and this dandy 21st-century National Theatre of Great Britain production. The basis for this mash-up, written in an intoxication of words by former psychologist and stand-up comedian Richard Bean, is Carlo Goldoni’s 1746 knee-slapper The Servant of Two Masters. The premise is just as the title suggests: A gluttonous, doltish fellow (James Corden) is trapped by farce and circumstance into working for two bosses, who turn out to be linked to one another in ridiculously complicated (and sometimes just ridiculous) ways.
In the nimble reimagining whipped up by Bean and wizardly director Nicholas Hytner, the play’s setting has shifted to Brighton, England, in the early 1960s, when skiffle bands were banging away in the last days before the Beatles broke the mold. The man with one boss too many is Francis Henshall, played by Corden in a Jackon Gleason-ish blaze of genius and a riotous wardrobe of plaids, argyles, and herringbone. Corden is co-creator of the very funny British comedy Gavin and Stacey (find it on BBC America, do); on stage, he is master of revels, juggler of improvisatory gestures, and maker of a kind of merry that invites the audience to have as much fun as he’s having.
One of Henshall’s bosses — one guvnor — is an exaggeratedly posh, class-conscious, overgrown boarding school old boy named Stanley Stubbers, played by Oliver Chris with a bit of Monty Python’s Eric Idle in his cocked eyebrow. The other guvnor is Rachel Crabbe, who’s passing as her dead brother because…well, because of some exaggeratedly silly reason. Jemima Rooper does the honors, with a glint of Joanna Lumley in her harrumphs. The cast also includes the dim, virginal Pauline Clench (Claire Lams), who’s in love with a would-be actor named Alan Dangle (Daniel Rigby), who’s in love with himself; and Pauline’s florid father (Fred Ridgeway), the attorney Harry Dangle (Martyn Ellis); and the naughty bookkeeper, Dolly (Suzie Toase), who might have learned her moves from Christina Hendricks’ Joan on Mad Men.
The whole thing is knit together by an actual onstage skiffle band called The Craze, a quartet of young gents in skinny, shiny Beatles-in-Hamburg suits who sing and rock before and during the show; they’re joined at one time or another by every actor in the company doing his or her own bit of singing or playing or otherwise pitching in the glee. The production is utterly, profoundly, ridiculously British in its high-low antics and wordplay. There’s no need to brush up on Commedia dell’Arte, Christmas pantos, or music-hall ditties to enjoy One Man, Two Guvnors. You’ll know smart hilarity when you’re guffawing at it. A
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