The town of Brighton has always been a popular place for Londoners. With its famous pier, its seaside entertainment and its crowds, it’s a town where people go south from the capital to meet, to bathe and, for certain Londoners with a few secrets that need to remain secret, to hide.
What a stroke of brilliance, then, that playwright Richard Bean should use the coastal town as an early sixties period setting for his riotous adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s Italian comedy, The Servant of Two Masters. It couldn’t be more perfect. With its slapstick, its abundance of physical humor and its occasional moment of improvisation, it could easily have been called Carry On Brighton, but it’s not; its title is as clever as the play itself. Using the parlance of its cockney transplants, hiding from whatever they’ve done up in the big city, masters become guv’nors and the servant is one bloke running at breakneck speed between the two. One Man, Two Guvnors, now playing at Phoenix Theatre, is hilarious,
If you get the chance, do yourself a favor. Ten minutes before the show, grab a program, take your seat and read director Pasha Yamotahri’s director’s notes regarding the origins of Italy’s Commedia Del Arte. In a concise paragraph, you’ll be briefed on the improvisational style of the play’s cultural origins, the inclusion of musical interludes and the importance of popular characters, such as man servants. It’s not required but it helps, and gives a nice perspective on the structure of what you’re about to see. One Man, Two Guvnors isn’t simply a typical British farce based on an Italian play, it’s a celebration of all Brit music hall comedy, the kind that inspired Benny Hill, the Carry On team and Brian Rix.
The manic plot is not an easy sell, but basically, as the title suggests, Francis Henshall (Ron May) is a servant employed by two men. One, a gangster, the other, a criminal, and both in hiding, away from the madding crowd of London. Francis is hungry, literally and figuratively, and takes on the double duty of serving two men hoping it will eventually lead to a full meal. It’s the manic energy of doing his best to keep the two guv’nors apart that keeps the play rolling until everyone collapses from sheer exhaustion by the final bow.
The physical humor full of pratfalls, slaps across the face, a burning plate and even a fire extinguisher is funny enough, but Bean’s script incorporates such continual, rapid fire witty dialog among the visual gags – burnt iron marks on two white shirts is side-splitting – that audiences are treated to the best of all comedic worlds. When characters talk of someone risen from the dead, it’s followed by an explanation of how long the miracle took; “Two days. Better than the previous record.” Plus, as this is 1963, Ringo Starr is mentioned as a drummer for some current, popular beat combo, Margaret Thatcher is slyly referenced for her failed policies yet to come, and Jenny Hintze as Rachel Crabbe disguised as her twin brother Roscoe (don’t ask) talks of telephones of the future that might ring anywhere. “It might even ring in the theatre,” she states while pointing an accusing finger down at someone in the first row.
There’s also improvisation when Ron May enlists the help of audience members to help him on stage. When calling out for a sandwich, someone in the house responded that they had a granola bar. “This is 1963,” ad-libbed May without missing a beat. “I don’t know much about those future foods.” Needless to say, the exchange will be different each night. The play’s biggest laugh – and it’s a genuine gut buster – just before the intermission evolves out of yet more audience participation, but to explain further would be criminal. See it for yourself.
The musical interludes are toned down from the London and Broadway original. Instead of a skiffle band or trumpeters standing in a row, the production uses its cast members to join music director Alan Tuch around The Cricketers Arms pub piano for sing-alongs while incorporating all kinds of different music hall (vaudeville) styles. There’s even a Lonnie Donegan My Ol’ Man’s a Dustman type ditty, plus some nice keyboard and trumpet accompaniment from one of the two guv’nors, Michael Kary. When May accompanies one number on the xylophone, pay close attention; the payoff is a hoot.
The sizeable cast all bring that abundance of energy needed to make the show work as they race around while trying to keep out of each other’s way. English southern accents prove difficult for some, though the awfulness of certain cockney pronunciations add to the absurdity of events rather than hinder them. However, special mention to both David Vining (Harry Dangle) and Michael Kary (Stanley Stubbers) both of whom would fool a London audience in thinking they were locals.
The scene stealer is David Barker as Alfie, the eighty-seven year old bumbling waiter who mistakenly thinks he’s eighty-six. The character was a late addition that playwright Bean added after the need to boost the dinner scene, and it becomes comedy gold. Complete with mad scientist hair, a clueless, open mouthed, eager to please smile and a pacemaker that when properly tuned makes him move faster, Barker is a joy to watch.
But at the center of it all is Ron May recreating the role that made James Corden the toast of both London and New York, and it’s perfect casting. There’s an obvious physical similarity between the two actors, but May brings a different kind of energy to the role of the servant; it’s one fueled by nerves. With eyes that constantly dart from left to right, a brow that continually needs wiping and a face that can neither relax nor smile, May looks like an overweight ball of stress; you can see his mind never stops.
The play suffers from a weaker second half that can’t quite reach the giddy heights of the first, plus there’s a danger amongst the mayhem as things begin to wrap that it may at any moment all fall apart. But somehow it doesn’t. After watching the cleverness of One Man, Two Guvnors, a regular British farce with all its banging doors, its PG-rated sexual innuendo, the mistaken identities and the trouser-dropping will no longer seem enough.
For more information, CLICK HERE for the Phoenix Theatre website.