Having played at the National Theatre, where it originated, and jogged round the country on tour, you might expect One Man, Two Guvnors to lope into the West End looking a little weary and frayed. Not a bit of it. Nicholas Hytner’s perfectly pitched production of Richard Bean’s delirious comedy is sharp, silly and trimmer than at the outset: gloriously funny and a plum piece of seasonal entertainment.
Bean takes Goldoni’s famous 18th-century comedy, The Servant of Two Masters, and transposes it to 1960s Brighton, lending it a pleasing blend of the raffish and the roguish. The seaside setting evokes British popular comedy – end of the pier shows, saucy postcards – and the shifting culture and gang rivalry of the early 1960s. But all that is in the background, like the distant vista of the sea on Mark Thompson’s set, while Bean, Hytner and the cast tackle the cat’s cradle of the plot.
Here Francis Henshall (James Corden) somehow lands himself two jobs serving different masters, and so becomes embroiled in the petty crime scene. Master number one is Rachel Crabbe, who, for reasons of the plot, is disguised as her dead twin brother; master number two is Stanley Stubbers, Rachel’s posh twit lover, who is on the run for killing the real brother. Neither knows the other is in Brighton; the main engine of the plot is that Francis, while ineptly trying to serve both at once, keeps them apart. The delight lies in the contrast between the characters’ deadly earnestness and the absurdity of the situation, together with the fact that, as in life, everyone is terrified of being found out.
Bean’s dialogue glitters with one-liners and wordplay, while the physical comedy director Cal McCrystal provides some inspired slapstick sequences, climaxing in a virtuoso dinner scene in which Tom Edden excels as a doddery old waiter. But Hytner’s production – which is due for a Broadway run next April – also tiptoes deftly along the line between innocence and knowingness, with Corden chatting away to the audience about the rules of commedia dell’arte. It’s a game, but one played seriously – and that is the joy. Corden manages this beautifully: his Francis is tremendously endearing, stepping in and out of character to work the audience, and handling slapstick with nimble flair.
But this is no one-man show. The fine cast creates a gallery of disastrous, yet lovable characters, from Daniel Rigby’s ridiculous would-be actor, to Suzie Toase’s minxy secretary and Oliver Chris’s superb, Teflon-coated toff. Laced with skiffle music, this show is a tonic for a gloomy winter.