“My honour has been fiddled with”
I’ve spoken before about the unwiseness of booking for shows that you don’t fancy even though they have very appealing casts and that goes double when it is a form of theatre that you know you can’t stand. Yet despite this, I still booked a pair of £12 tickets for One Man, Two Guvnors at the Lyttelton in the vain hope that I might be won over. For as you may or may not know, farce is one of my least favourite styles of theatre, I rarely find it funny, though I have tried, but this is compounded here by the casting of James Corden in the central role, a man whose ubiquity and public persona I find most objectionable. So why on earth did I book? Good question, but it was in the interests of trying to keep my theatrical experiences as broad as possible, the promise of a wonderful sounding supporting cast and the intriguing addition of songs by Grant Olding being introduced into the mix.
Based on the Italian comedy The Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldoni, Richard Bean has relocated the play to 1960s Brighton, thus mixing its commedia dell’arte origins with a British sitcom sensibility and augmented by the ever-present in-house band The Craze who provide musical entertainment before the show starts and during the interval as well as interspersing the action. The plot, for what it’s worth, concerns Francis Henshall, a (assumedly) cheeky chappy who’s down on his luck with no money and a huge appetite. He falls into a job as a minder for a gangster Roscoe Crabbe who is in town to collect £6,000 and then as chance would have it, he gets a second job working for a guy called Stanley Stubbers who is staying in the same hotel. But all is not what it seems: Roscoe is actually his twin sister Rachel in disguise as Roscoe was murdered by her boyfriend and she wants to collect the money to run away with her beloved, who just happens to be Stanley who is in hiding from the police. This being a farce, Francis then has to keep the two from discovering each other though they are staying in the same pub as he wants to keep the two pay packets and thus be able to eat and get his end away.
Perhaps sadly if predictably, I was really not a fan of it. From the moment the fourth wall was broken in the opening scene and the audience participation hinted at, it was clear that this was not going to be the show that redefined my attitude towards this genre. And maybe it is tied up with my preconceptions about Corden, but I did find him to be the main obstacle to my enjoyment – indeed there were moments when he was not onstage where I was in danger of cracking a smile. It feels like Nicholas Hytner has employed the lightest of touches in directing Corden and so his performance really does come off as an extension of his ostensibly lovable everyman shtick rather than the creation of a new character, he treats it almost like a stand-up show which does not work and suggests a laziness in his approach. Given the laughter and applause that surrounded me – even his first entrance onstage was whooped – this was not the popular assessment and maybe I ought to be more charitable given that this was a preview performance, but it is the National Theatre we are talking about and crucially, Corden was shown up by the ensemble around him who had a much keener sense of how to play the comedy as an integral part of the fabric of the show. Suzie Toase in particular was just fabulous at breaking the fourth wall, a real sense of taking the audience into her confidence, and it was her character Dolly that benefitted most from the temporal relocation, her working woman in the time of early Women’s Lib was like a breath of fresh air.
Another problem I had was with the constant overplaying of the humour. Every gag whether verbal or visual are stretched out and repeated or replayed so that even the funniest of moments began to flag at the third and fourth, if not more, iteration. Oliver Chris’ ridiculous public schoolboy utterances were largely very funny but instead of remaining inventive, relied too much on repetition although his delivery was spot on throughout and he was one of the production’s saving graces. Along with Jemima Rooper’s man-drag as Rachel/Roscoe, they anchored the show with a dramatic validity that allowed the comedy in their own performances and around them to flow freely in the (Corden-free) ensemble. Claire Lams does a fine job as the perma-confused Pauline, thoroughly befuddled by life but utterly besotted with Alan, whose hilarious thespian posturings are great; Fred Ridgeway and Martyn Ellis are also fun as their respective fathers as was Trevor Laird’s kindly Lloyd – all had their comic moments and all were forced to deliver them over and over again – there is just no sophistication in the writing: plus the word fluff is used in a bizarre coincidence as it was the very same word that was my least favourite thing about The Cherry Orchard, also currently playing at the National.
The best part of the show for me was Grant Olding’s music. A set of 60s pastiches, Buddy Holly-like songs that peppered the play but also, brilliantly, allowed musical interludes of a simply bizarre diversity from the cast members during scene changes (the girl group was my favourite though the horns and chest slapping were also fab). What this implied to me though was the tacit recognition that the play itself was not strong enough to stand on its own, it needs this bolstering which does inject considerable energy into the production. I didn’t care for Mark Thompson’s flimsy set; I found the audience stuff completely unnecessary; though I am sometimes a fan of unchallenging, easy humour, it never really connected with me here, the geriatric waiter stuff was just painful; but most importantly and somewhat ironically for someone who rose to fame as part of a Hytner-directed ensemble, Corden does not feel an organic part of this production. Perhaps this will come by opening night though I personally doubt it, but then when there were people ovating around me, it is clear I am very much in the minority here.