April 2013

Arts & Letters

‘One Man, Two Guvnors’ theatre review

By Peter Conrad

© Johann Persen

Good medicine

One kind of laughter starts in the brain and seldom gets much further than a chuckling at the back of the throat or a scornful wrinkling of the lips as we respond to – or, better yet, say – something witty. Another kind, louder and usually lewder, starts further down, and is synonymous with the belly. A smirking mouth can’t hold it in; it erupts from inside you like lava, in fits that eventually acquire their own momentum. When the spasm is over, you are left exhausted, gasping for breath, sometimes aching despite your exhilaration. You’ve been turned inside out, and may wonder why you made such a spectacle of yourself and allowed your face to be distorted by those bursts of mad hilarity.

Be prepared to disgrace yourself, and maybe even to do yourself an injury, if you see One Man, Two Guvnors on its current Australian tour. Two years ago I went quite unprepared to a preview performance of Nicholas Hytner’s National Theatre in London production, knowing only that the piece was Richard Bean’s adaptation of an 18th-century harlequinade by Carlo Goldoni about a servant who elasticises himself so he can respond simultaneously to the demands of two capricious masters. I emerged tottering, my throat ragged from roaring with laughter for two hours, my ribs and stomach as sore as if I had been beaten up.

Once the show opened, the hysteria spread. In 2012 the production went to New York and won a Tony for the portly, flustered James Corden, cast as Francis Henshall, the over-stretched but ingenious servant whose tight, spivvy chequered suit is his equivalent of the harlequin’s outfit in the commedia dell’arte. Since then, with a succession of expert stand-up comedians replacing Corden, One Man, Two Guvnors has become a fixture in London’s West End, while another spun-off company recently travelled around the British provinces. (It’s this itinerant troupe who will be seen in Sydney and Melbourne.) The single man and his dual bosses are on a mission to cheer up the world, or perhaps to drive it happily deranged.

On a return visit to the London version a while ago, I surrendered to the mayhem once more, but began to realise – during the interval that Francis permits us so we can recover from the first orgiastic hour while he conducts a health-and-safety check to see that none of his colleagues onstage have harmed themselves – that this is a play about comedy, exemplifying all its varieties, demonstrating its use as both a battering ram and a balm, and reminding us how essential it is to our mental health and social survival. No matter who’s playing the role, Francis should look like one of the red-faced characters in the naughty postcards that George Orwell said were a summation of the raucous, covertly obscene British sense of humour: he’s the comic spirit in person.

On the surface, to keep our brains diverted, One Man, Two Guvnors skitters through an anthology of jokes about language, which is the medium of our confusion and the cause of our inability to communicate. The milieu here is criminal – gangsters from the East End are on the lam in Brighton, with coppers chasing them up and down the seaside town’s amusement pier – so the thugs talk in unintelligibly complex cockney rhyming slang. Meanwhile a lawyer spouts sesquipedalian Latin, and a murderer who went to private school has his own upper-class lingo, glorious in its nonsensicality: “Buggerello!” he exclaims at one point, though the poshest of his curses is “Oh, foot and mouth!”

Tongue-twisting cadenzas are developed by using alliteration, and the characters swap ever more elaborate lines in which virtually every word begins with the letter ‘d’. The appearance of a dish containing trout in almonds, or truite aux amandes, sets off a blinding firework display of polylingual puns. The recurring jokes include a riff about Australia (with an additional put-down of Tasmania in one of Francis’ routines): I’m curious to know whether there will be some tactful cuts before these whimsies, which of course provoke automatic mirth in Britain, are tried out on audiences down under.

Despite the verbal inventiveness, One Man, Two Guvnors would work just as efficiently if it were silent, or if Bean had left it in Goldoni’s Italian. Like the greatest Chaplin films, it’s about the inarticulate eloquence of the body, its urgent cravings and its sly semaphoring of thought and feeling. What if human beings defined themselves as animals who laugh, rather than creatures who reason and waste their time talking? Words matter less here than the body’s impertinent noises and its covert habits. After lunch, Francis indulges himself by farting, and there’s also a passage of mime where he illustrates the difference between the genders by mimicking their ways of peeing.

Another repeated joke concerns a doddery octogenarian waiter who concusses himself as he attempts to uncork a bottle of wine, or struggles upstairs with a clattering soup tureen and then tumbles backwards into the stairwell. No one on stage notices the little catastrophe, but we do, and we shriek with heartless merriment. Comedy is cruel: here is a little demonstration of Henri Bergson’s point that nothing could be funnier than watching someone else trip up. We laugh, Bergson said, because we are so terrified of our own precariousness, aware that our self-respect depends on our capacity to outwit gravity. But the ancient waiter has an almost rubberised resilience. Someone revives him by turning up the power switch on his pacemaker from three to nine, and – if you’re not weeping with laughter by this point – you watch a corpse run amok.

In calmer moments, such as when a would-be actor caught up in the intrigue pauses to theorise about theatre, it is also a thoughtful piece. “Character is action,” says the thesp, called Orlando Dangle (although this is happening in 1963, so he rechristens himself Alan in the hope of being cast in gritty kitchen-sink dramas). Another character disagrees and cites the case of Hamlet, who spends five hours not performing the vindictive action that has been assigned to him. But what’s more important for a play: motivation, or the sheer delight of acrobatic movement? Francis too reflects on his motives. In the first act, he’s impelled by hunger (which makes him gobble cheese from a mousetrap, motivating it to spring shut on his tongue) along with thirst (sated when he mixes the assorted dregs abandoned in a pub, pouring beer, fruit juice and a cigarette butt into a glass and heroically downing the lot). So what can kick-start his antics in the second act? He decides on the equally primal impetus of lust, and starts pursuing a dolly bird – as nubile young women were called in the sexist 1960s – who conveniently goes by the name of Dolly. Yet just when you think it’s all nothing but the automated puppetry of instinct, Dolly stops the show with a prophetic soliloquy that reveals she is more than one of the inflatable fantasies in the rude postcards described by Orwell.

“You see how this play works?” Francis asks us near the end. One Man, Two Guvnors is forever exposing the fraudulence of the theatre, then gulling us into believing in the illusion all over again. Hence two extended passages of improvisation, during which recruits from the audience – the front row is a perilous place to be – suffer appalling indignities on stage simply because, unluckily for them, they happen to be real people, not performers.

The piece is wonderfully inane and at the same time unexpectedly profound: its whirligig plot hints at the mystery of a human identity that we watch being broken down and reformed in front of us. Francis has two masters but he is also two people: he magically duplicates himself, inventing an Irish alter ego whom he then impersonates. This requires a flurry of panicked exits and re-entrances, with a little jig from Riverdance thrown in whenever he reappears as Paddy. In reality, people with multiple personalities are psychotic; in the theatre, the affliction produces great art. Francis energetically exhibits his duality by having a fight with himself – a few minutes of supreme physiological virtuosity.

Another character is disguised as her dead twin brother, prompting a little lecture on sperms fertilising eggs and the difference between mono- and dizygotes. The biological aside explains our division into fractions or fragments, which are always yearning to be reunited with their sundered other halves – and that, as when two pairs of twins track each other through Ephesus in Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors, is what we witness here. On stage, individuals who have been at war with each other are merged at the end in a joyously tipsy extended family, with vendettas, murders and financial graft conveniently overlooked; in the audience, hundreds of strangers are united by their collective, contagious laughter. A skiffle band plays as we disperse, its refrain proclaiming what might be the gospel of comedy: “Tomorrow looks good to me.”

Peter Conrad

Peter Conrad’s most recent book is How the World Was Won. His Myths of the Day, based on a BBC radio series, will be published in 2016.

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