One Man Two Guvnors by Richard Bean.
Directed by Chris Baldock. Assistant director Karina Hudson. Theatre 3 Canberra Repertory Society. November
15 – December 2. Bookings 62571950
Reviewed by Peter Wilkins
What does it take to make a cracker of a comedy. Well, to start with take a deliciously witty, hysterically funny and frenetically madcap script. Find a daringly imaginative director and a top notch production team. And then for the piece de resistance, cast a hugely talented and up for anything company of comic actors and you’ve hit the theatrical jackpot of Canberra Rep’s year.
Based on Carlo Goldoni’s brilliantly conceived The Servant of Two Masters, Richard Bean’s One Man Two Guvnors moves Goldoni’s seventeenth century play to Britain’s Brighton in the Sixties. Francis Henshall (Arran McKenna) finds himself employed by the East End criminal, Roscoe (Meaghan Stewart) and the suave Stanley (Patrick Galen-Mules) The play opens at the engagement of Pauline (Holly Ross), the empty headed daughter of Underworld boss Charlie Clench (Paul Sweeney) and his wife (Stephanie Roberts), to Alan (Brenton Cleaves), the would be Laurence Olivier and son of the underworld lawyer Harry Dangle (Patrick Collins).
Enter the hapless Henshall, immediately drawn into a mire of confusion and mayhem as he tries to serve two “guvnors”, and keep himself out of trouble. And there you have it – a recipe for mix-ups, mash-ups and non-stop shenanigans as Henshall desperately tries to keep both crims apart while madly trying to find the time to appease a gnawing hunger, It’s a rib-tickling rollercoaster ride of slapstick, pratt falls, surprising secrets and crackerjack timing. While observing the conventions of Commedia del Arte and Goldoni’s basic plot, Bean’s play is a startlingly original adaption, paying homage to the Carry On team and the tradition of British farce.
However, comedy is serious business and it takes a very special team to keep the audience laughing in the aisles, rocking in their seats and applauding at every gag and bit of silly business, not to mention the unfortunate fate of the unwitting audience member, drawn into the chaotic caryy ons. A plant? Surely not!!??
Baldock and his team have got this runaway comedy down to a tee. Every element of production is meticulously executed. Baldock introduces a skiffle band with Nick Dennis on lead vocals and guitar and harmonica, Peter Macdonald on percussion and Hayley Manning on Double Bass to lift the spirits in the foyer and then accompany the production with a range of musical numbers from Country and Western to Rock, Pop and Vaudeville. Scene changes are covered by individual musical items from various cast members and the show roils along on a torrent of sheer entertainment. Baldock’s direction keeps a tight rein on the action, which is slick, quick and never missing a beat. Only the opening exposition appeared a little halting as the players set the scene, but McKenna’s entrance soon got the comedy in the groove, and from that moment on, the production rocketed with comedic force.
What gives every actor in this production such distinctive character is the total allegiance to the elements of commedia, freshly minted in Bean’s British adaption, and thoroughly realized through Baldock’s detailed direction. Central to the play’s success is the casting of Francis Henshall, the hapless servant of two guvnors. Baldock has been fortunate to assemble an outstanding cast of comedic actors, but the casting of McKenna is inspired. He imbues Henshall with the spirit of every great comic from Keaton to Chaplin, and Kenneth Williams to Rowan Atkinson. His slapstick roll about knockabout action is a tour de force of physical comedy as is his awkward flirting with Roberts’s coquettish Dolly.
It is rare for a reviewer to catch a show at the end of its run. In the West End it’s not uncommon to review a show again after six months or so. On this occasion, I visited a Rep production that was as tight and as slick as Bean’s comedy had to be. Some shows can lag and become complacent as a season drags on. This production showed Rep up for the brilliant pro-am company it can be with a production that would make even the sourest smirk turn into a sunny smile. One Man Two Guvnors is the ideal curtain raiser for the Festive Season.