New Wolsey opens autumn season with classic knock-about farce
PUBLISHED: 19:00 19 September 2019
@ Mike Kwasniak Photography
One Man, Two Guvnors was a huge hit when it was premiered at the National Theatre nearly ten years ago. Now the New Wolsey Theatre is putting a new spin on the modern farce
The New Wolsey is launching its autumn season with a classic piece of modern theatre One Man, Two Guvnors, which was based on another great slice of classic theatre A Servant of Two Masters.
The Wolsey Theatre first opened its doors in 1979 with a production of the original play by Carlo Goldoni, now 40 years later the New Wolsey will be looking for similar success with the updated production by Richard Bean which was a huge success for National Theatre when they staged it in 2011.
The knock-about farce starred James Cordon, fresh from his success in Alan Bennett's The History Boys and from his TV sitcom Gavin and Stacey, and his energetic, attention-grabbing performance dominated all the headlines.
Set in Brighton in 1963, it tells the story of Francis Henshall who has just been fired from a skiffle band and in need of money, he becomes minder to Roscoe Crabbe, a small time East End hood, in Brighton to collect £6,000 from his fiancée's dad. But Roscoe is really his sister Rachel posing as her own dead brother, who's been killed by her boyfriend Stanley Stubbers.
Holed up at The Cricketers' Arms, the permanently ravenous Francis spots the chance of an extra meal ticket and takes a second job with one Stanley Stubbers, who is hiding from the police and waiting to be re-united with Rachel. To prevent discovery, Francis must keep his two guvnors apart.
It's classic farce but as New Wolsey director Pete Rowe explains he didn't want to make a copy of the National Theatre production, he wanted to explore something new he found in the script.
Were you aware that the original Wolsey Theatre opened its doors in 1979 with a production of A Servant of Two Masters - the inspiration for the farce One Man Two Guvnors?
"No I wasn't. It's total chance but it displays a wonderful sense of synchronicity. I'm not surprised that they opened with the original play because its a wonderful comic tale and there have been many different adaptations of it over the years but this latest one by Richard Bean is fantastic.
Did the fact that James Cordon had such a huge hit with the play in London make it difficult to revisit it quite so soon?
"The reputation of that production is centred very much around the performance of James Cordon. It clearly was an excellent production but the focus of the critical response was very much concerned with Cordon star-turn in the central role. I never saw it so I am coming to this new production completely fresh.
"I have read many adaptations of A Servant of Two Masters over the years and always fancied bringing it to the stage and I got close to doing the Lee Hall version but I came across the Richard Bean script and thought: 'How clever, how original and how funny'. What appealed to me was the fact it was clearly much more of an ensemble show than the popular reaction to the London production suggested.
"The New Wolsey is always about ensemble shows rather than star-turns. Yes it is Francis' story but he exists in a world filled with other people and everyone gets their moment in the spotlight. We are staging it as an actor-musician show. Our band is drawn from the actors in the company and has all the ingredients that I know our audiences love.
"It's all about entertaining people and discovering new ways of making people laugh. It's not that far away from pantomime. Hopefully it will appeal to that audience because it has all that physical comedy, all that knock-about, slapstick humour that makes panto what it is but I suppose that the difference between panto and One Man Two Guvnors is that it is executed with more of a light touch.
I'm sure that it's more difficult than it sounds...
"The real trick is to put the work in so it seems effortless. It's hard work. It's all about timing. Each entrance, each opening of a door, each departure has to be spot on and yet it must look completely natural and spontaneous. It's a really fun science. Comic timing is a wonderful thing to explore. The timing of those individual journeys is really enjoyable to work out in the rehearsal room. It's endlessly fascinating to make those things work, so the audience can understand what's going on and yet remains funny. You kind of know when you have got the right rhythm and once you have got it it's just a case of fine-tuning those rhythms.
So how much does a performance change once you put it in front of an audience?
"It can change a great deal. There is always a process when you are rehearsing a comedy when you no longer know what's funny. The things you were laughing at uproariously during the read through and on the first days of rehearsal are now dead. You've heard the jokes so many times that its no longer funny. There's always a time in rehearsal when you are desperately wanting an audience to come in and breathe new life into it. You want to see it through their eyes. An audience is brilliant because they let you know which bits are working, which bits they get and which they don't. I think with any comedy, but particularly with a fast-paced comedy like this, there's a lot of fine-tuning that goes on once you are in front of an audience.
"Also being on the set brings alot of changes because you can't really time these things like doors opening until you are actually doing it for real. You can only do it properly when you have got the doors and walls you are going to use.
From the way you describe things, the timing of farce sounds very much like musician keeping time, being on the beat. Does it help that the cast are actor-musicians, in terms of finding the rhythm in a performance?
"I think it does. This company is about half and half, between actor-musicians and non-actor musicians and that sense of rhythm is very important on stage, in terms of finding the comedy. The old saying 'timing is everything' is very true and if you are a musician then you have that advantage. Musicians have the confidence to know when to wait, where to hold the beat, to build that anticipation to get a bigger laugh. On other occasions they know when to let the script do the hard work, to let the show provide its own rhythm and that's the real chemistry which a good ensemble cast brings to a production, they all work together to take the show to the next punchline. In rehearsal we talk about the show as if it is a musical because there are beats which you have to be aware of and crescendos you have to accent.
One Man, Two Guvnors, by Richard Bean, runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, until September 28.