One Man, Two Guvnors delivers big laughs at New Wolsey
PUBLISHED: 18:56 12 September 2019 | UPDATED: 12:14 14 September 2019
@ Mike Kwasniak Photography
Review: One Man, Two Guvnors, by Richard Bean, New Wolsey Theatre, until September 28
One Man, Two Guvnors is a play with a reputation - it's both a wonderful piece of modern theatre and, as an adaptation of A Servant of Two Masters, it is also a classic farce. It secured James Corden's reputation as a West End leading man when he starred in the National Theatre's production in 2011 following his ensemble contribution to Alan Bennett's The History Boys.
The National's production which transferred to the Adelphi Theatre is so well remembered, in part thanks to an early NT Live broadcast in cinemas, that it makes the New Wolsey's choice of opening production for the autumn 2019 season a particularly audacious one.
On paper, it looks a tricky play to pull off but on the other hand it plays to artistic director Peter Rowe's strengths. He's great at choreographing physical comedy and treats farce rather like a musical, relishing the beats and rhythms which keep the action moving along.
One Man, Two Guvnors is set in Brighton, in 1963. It is the era which gave birth to The Beatles and our hero Francis Henshall (Philip Tomlin) is a man out of step with the world. While everyone else is grooving to the Fab Four he is lamenting the fact that his services are no longer required in the local skiffle band.
Desperate for a wage and food he engineers a way to become an employee of two nefarious characters while a pair of gangsters try to sort out a political marriage which will allow everyone to keep their honour satisfied.
The plot isn't really what is important - it's a device to move Francis from one self-inflicted disaster to another. There's a band over-looking the stage which act as a Greek chorus commenting in song, at the end of each act, on the action taking place below them.
Pete Rowe has assembled an experienced cast which features Josie Dunn (last seen in Our Blue Heaven) as a cross-dressing gangster (who may or may not be an identical twin), George Maguire (who played Marc Bolan in 20th Century Boy) as a wonderfully vain actor, Elizabeth Rowe (who has starred in two rock'n'roll pantos and Made in Dagenham) as the dim would-be bride along with a host of experienced performers making their debuts at the New Wolsey.
Luke Barton makes public school charmer Stanley Stubbers, one of Francis' emplyers, into a hugely entertaining character and Richard Leeming's ancient waiter Alfie is pure comedy gold.
The person with the biggest task is Philip Tomlin who, as Francis Henshall, has landed himself the lead role in a major play as his first job out of drama school. It's a demanding performance, which requires great charisma and huge amounts of energy to pull off. As good as Philip is, and as energetic as he is, I can't help thinking that it would have been wiser to cast someone with a little more experience in this central role.
The play seems slightly tentative at the beginning. You need to hit the ground running, you need to immediately invite the audience into this slightly surreal world. There are plenty of opportunities thanks to a multitude of confidential asides to the audience but the connections didn't seem as assured as they might. Thankfully, as the action developed, as the laughs built, everyone seemed to relax and this brilliantly funny play took flight.
The build up to the interval is staggeringly good and will have audiences howling with laughter. Surprises are dropped into the action throughout the play to keep everyone on their toes and once the play gets going the momentum does not stop.
One Man, Two Guvnors is a feelgood romp which will leave audiences cheering but as the play settles down, hopefully the opening scenes will become a little more assured.