Richard Bean has successfully transferred Carlo Goldoni’s commedia dell’arte comedy to the National Theatre Olivier’s stage. The play is moved seamlessly from Venice in the 1740s to Brighton in the 1960’s.
The evermore chaotic plot circles around Goldoni’s Truffaldino, Bean’s newly christened Francis Henshall (James Corden) the joker in the tale, who finds himself to be working for two “guvnors”. The first is Rachel Crabbe (Jemima Rooper), disguised as her dead twin who was in fact killed by her boyfriend. The other govner is indeed, and most unfortunately for Henshall, Rachel’s boyfriend, snooty public school boy Stanley Stubbers (Oliver Chris). Neither is aware of the other’s presence in Brighton and a great deal of the comedy arises from Henshall’s elaborate attempts to keep each guvnor in the dark and himself fed.
What makes this rather traditional, predictable comedy shine is the seamless combination of verbal and physical humour. The text is full of one-liners and running gags. Of particular note is the dinner scene. Triffaldino / Henshall runs back and forth in an ever greater frenzy between his two employers all the while trying to eat as much of the food as possible himself. In between totters the octogenarian waiter (Tom Edden) whose performance of instability is brilliant.
Corden is back at the National with director Hytner for the first time since 2004 when he shone in The History Boys. Despite harbouring some doubts regarding Corden, he gave an impressive performance that even included audience involvement. On the preview night, when asking (probably rhetorically) where he should take Dolly (Suzi Toase) on a first date, someone in the second row shouted “Somewhere with tablecloths” to which Corden sharply replied, “Hang around after the show and we’ll use your shirt”.
While Corden is the undoubtedly the paper chewing, hunger motivated, attention seeking focus of the plot, he is surrounded by strong performances. Chris plays the twit Stanley’s public school arrogance to clichéd perfection. Daniel Rigby’s would-be actor is spot on. Suzi Toase plays the redheaded secretary right on the edge between a hard headed woman and a lady in love. Her comedic timing is impeccable.
What really brings this joyful performance to life is the musical interludes led by composer Grant Olding. Walking into a theatre filled by swinging sets the scene for fun. The following solos by the principal members of cast gives a feeling that everyone is here to have a good time and helps the nearly three hour show fly by.
Mark Thompson’s set design feels like the scene of a Brighton post card come to life. The numerous scene changes keep the story fresh and alive.
This is not something new. Many of these gags were already done in Noises Off. It is not an outstanding, exemplary production, however it is great fun and you will leave with a smile on your face and feel you have indeed enjoyed an entertaining evening at the theatre.
Following its run at the National, One Man, Two Guvnors will go on tour, visiting Theatre Royal, Plymouth (October 4 – 8); The Lowry, Salford (October 11 – 15); New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham (October 18 – 22); and King’s Theatre, Edinburgh (October 25 – 29).