ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS AT THE BIRMINGHAM HIPPODROME
Theatre Run: Monday 26 - Saturday 31 May 2014
Performance Reviewed: Monday 26 May 2014 (Press Night)
Reviewed by Kyle Pedley
Prefacing a review with a retrospective hardly seems the most succinct of approaches, but in addressing One Man, Two Guvnors, it seems prudent to draw attention to a perspective I offered whilst discussing Michael Frayn’s seminal farce Noises Off last year:
‘It is a truth that often escapes audiences, yet is almost universally acknowledged by actors/directors and other theatre talent alike that comedy, and in particular comedy of the slapstick, physical and farcical variety, is one of the most difficult and disciplined of theatre forms to pull off convincingly and satisfyingly. Too broad and the lampooning leads to audience disconnect, too specific or regimented and it feels stilted, insincere and, well, staged. To marry the natural buoyancy and vim of comedy with the precision and practice of physical slapstick and farce in particular is so tricky a balancing act that rarely does it work as successfully in theatre as it would in other mediums such as film or television, which allow themselves the luxury and safety net of cutaways, close-ups and the edit to mask the joins.’
Plagiarising Lovingly referencing oneself aside, all of the above is perfectly applicable to unlikely National Theatre production One Man, Two Guvnors, which has embarked upon its latest UK tour and brings its raucous blend of distinctly British farce, slapstick and even a sprinkling of musical moments to the Birmingham Hippodrome this week. With a uniformly excellent cast who mine every ounce of hilarity from the razor-sharp writing, gloriously over-the-top characters and a slew of set pieces that make even the likes of Fawlty Towers seem positively pedestrian by comparison, One Man, Two Guvnors is minute-for-minute, laugh-for-laugh an undeniable stroke of contemporary comedic genius.
Endearing but muddled minder Francis Henshall (Gavin Spokes) has a problem. He is hungry, relatively broke and in the employ of local gangster Roscoe Crabbe who, unbeknownst to him, may or may not have recently been murdered. To enable him to reach his character goals (wittily self-referencing theatre storytelling convention) of being able to afford the modern miracle of pub food at his local, this being 1963 after all, he allows himself to become employed by haughty criminal Stanley Stubbers, currently on the run from London and possibly involved in the aforementioned gangster maybe-murder. Henshall finds himself haplessly embroiled in a wider series of complications which includes Roscoe’s fiance Pauline (Jasmyn Banks), her new thespian beau Alan (Edward Hancock), Roscoe’s twin sister Rachel (Alicia Davies), which the play has great fun labouring over their being non-identical, staunch feminist bookkeeper Dolly (Emma Barton) and a handful of additional supporting characters who, as per the nature of farce, all find themselves interlinked and involved with a suitably barnstorming and barmy comedy of errors, misdirection, mistaken identities and crossed wires, mostly courtesy of bumbling, easily confused Henshall. Throw in a handful of extended improvisational skits where members of the audience become hilariously involved (be prepared for heated and prolonged debates on whether or not they are stooges), and some measure of One Man, Two Guvnors insane, nigh-inimitable brilliance can be gauged.
For a farce, and an extremely funny one at that, One Man, Two Guvnors must be praised for the far more robust and knowing work it does with character and even self-parody, not falling prey to the major pitfall of leaning almost exclusively on the set piece and physical silliness to elicit laughs. From Dolly’s ironic musings and predictions of the compassion and gentility of Britain’s first female prime minister, luvvy Alan’s heightened theatricality at practically every moment and cadence, Stanley’s veritable treasure trove of upper class exclamations, outbursts and similes, (‘skin chimney’ being a personal, if somewhat cringe-inducing, delight), dim-witted Pauline failing to comprehend practically everything and so on, every character is colourfully defined and inherently funny in and of themselves, and whilst many may be broad caricatures or types merely written and performed incredibly well, the strength of character work allows for a far more even-handed balancing of comedy that, if anything, has less of the pie-in-the-face approach than one may first expect. It’s a show that can seamlessly one minute alliteratively duel with the phonetics of a man ‘dying from diabetes after being diagnosed with diarrhea in Dagenham’ to the next having a pensioner scramble around hyperactively charged by his pacemaker after being struck repeatedly in the face by doors and a cricket bat, spliced together with a handful of variety musical performances and set changes that, by dint of their conviction and the talent involved, somehow just completely works.
The key component to this success is mostly courtesy of the show's outstanding cast, and you’ll be hard pressed to find anything remotely resembling a weak link. A trifecta of former Eastenders talent in the form of Shaun Williamson, Jasmyn Banks and Emma Barton all do terrific character work, and whilst Williamson’s role is perhaps more slight than the show’s marketing would lead you to expect, he still gives great deadpan and put-upon. Banks is delightfully dippy as Pauline, her slew of outbursts, leaps of logic and ‘blonde’ moments being a great contrast to the characters around her (‘they’ve tried but they can’t make bricks thicker’, Williamson’s Charlie quips of her), and Barton too is brilliant throughout, keeping a Northern accent in check, dialing her Dolly up to eleven and generally being all long legs, laughs and lots of front. Edward Hancock is hilariously over-the-top both physically and verbally as amateur actor Alan, milking every entrance, exit and moment in-between with melodramatic relish, and Patrick Warner takes his pompous, lofty Stanley to similar excesses and gives one of the show’s funniest, standout turns, if such a plaudit is even fair given the exceptional level of performances across-the-board. Alicia Davies is a miniature whirlwind of energy and versatility, and Michael Dylan hobbles around stealing scenes and evoking laughs as the aforementioned unfortunate pensioner Alfie.
However, whilst One Man, Two Guvnors is not quite a one-man show, it certainly belongs to Gavin Spokes, who gives an absolute comedy tour-de-force as Francis Henshall, carrying the show with an assured mix of utter hilarity and confidence. Jostling around on-stage with seemingly inexhaustible exuberance, Spokes gives a masterful, naturalistic yet bombastic performance that crackles with nervous energy; each bead of sweat he frequently wipes away being a measure of a master artist hard at work and a well-earned medal of audience hysterics. Having not seen James Corden’s acclaimed performance in the same role, a comparison here is not possible, but anyone questioning seeing the show in Corden’s absence should put such paltry doubts aside, for Spokes gives a sensational performance that, coupled with the show’s inherent brilliance, is a thing of pure comedy genius.
A (loose) adaptation of Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters given a thoroughly British slant, One Man, Two Guvnor’s is theatrical comedy and silliness executed practically to perfection in every department and regard. The laughs are so varied and quickfire, and the vast majority so blisteringly on-point, that the result is that rare ilk of production that genuinely has ‘something for everyone’. British comedy has a long and proud heritage of iconic moments and titles, be they on-stage or on the screen, and it is no hyperbole to say that One Man, Two Guvnors comfortably deserves to be regarded amongst the comedy elites. It’s sheer joy and silliness is utterly infectious, and it is surely the highest possible praise when reviewing comedy to find yourself stifling giggles and laughter as you recount the shows many, many highlights.
The very definition of both feel-good and must-see, One Man, Two Guvnors, Three Eastenders’ and a supremely satisfied audience runs at the Birmingham Hippodrome until Saturday 31st May.
(A)MUSINGS RATING - * * * * * (5 out of 5 Stars)
+ British comedy simply doesn't get much better than this
+ Gavin Spokes' extraordinary lead performance... James who?
+ Supporting cast are similarly brilliant
+ Musical transitions by The Craze and cast are surprisingly effective
+ Relentlessly funny... the laughs come thick and fast
+ The slapstick moments are notably convincing
+ Terrific audience involvement
- Some of the stooge work is exposed in the programme prior to the show even starting
ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS is running at the Birmingham Hippodrome from Monday 26 to Saturday 31 May 2014.
Alternatively, call Ticket Sales directly on 0844 338 5000 now to book your tickets!
Press tickets for this performance of One Man, Two Guvnors were provided courtesy of the Birmingham Hippodrome directly. (A)musings Media gratefully acknowledges their generous invitation.