Whether or not you've been following all my posts on commedia dell'arte and the various Carlos (Goldoni, Gozzi, Mazzone-Clementi), whether or not you think commedia is the holy grail of ultimate theatricality or merely a corny, hoary, outdated performance style, you will probably be surprised to learn that a modern adaptation of Goldoni's Servant of Two Masters is the hottest ticket in London.
What we're talking about is One Man, Two Guvnors, an adaptation of the Goldoni play by Carlo Bean — oops, I mean Richard Bean — currently in rep at the National Theatre but scheduled to open a commercial run in the West End's Adelphi Theatre on November 8th. According to Variety, producer Bob Boyett already has plans to bring it to Broadway.
Playwright Bean, who must be a spiritual brother to Rowan Atkinson's Mr. Bean, has moved the play's action to 1963 Brighton and our two masters/guvnors are now gangsters. The reviewers all say that the intricate plot is hard to describe but that it works magnificently well. The BBC critic, for example, called it ‘the single funniest production I've ever seen."
What excited me was the equally unanimous verdict that the production, directed by the always impressive Nicholas Hytner, is a masterpiece of physical comedy, with James Corden in the lead and Tom Edden as the waiter receiving particular praise. This rave from the reviewer for the Daily Telegraph is typical:
Corden, with a face like an enormous potato and a physical dexterity that is astonishing in one so corpulent, brings a winningly warm and harassed humanity to the role. He constantly button-holes the audience with asides and ad-libs, and turns the play’s great set piece in which he simultaneously serves dinner to his two masters into one of the most uproarious scenes of farcical comedy I have ever witnessed. He is brilliantly abetted by Tom Edden as a doddery ancient waiter who suffers no end of humiliation and keeps falling down the stairs. During this set-piece I found myself physically helpless with laughter.
[Full review here.]
This is the official National Theatre preview video:
The National Theatre web site features the following series of six behind-the-scenes "video diaries." Aimed at the general public, they're not as informative as you or I might like, but at only a minute or two each, they're worth a look-see; the intros to each video are from the NT web site
Video Diary #1 — Meet Daniel
Take a peek into rehearsal room one and meet Daniel Rigby, an actor in One Man, Two Guvnors. See him rehearsing, hot seating and improvising as well as meeting some other cast members.
Video Diary #2 — Stage Fighting
Jemima Rooper takes us for a sneaky peek into Daniel Rigby's fight rehearsal. Watch Combat Kate teach the cast how to stage fight. Meet more of the cast. WARNING: Do not try this at home!
Video Diary #3 — Singing and Dancing
Watch the cast singing and dancing their way through rehearsals. Meet more of the cast. See the girls strut their stuff, get a sneak listen to one of the tunes in the show and see the skiffle band in action.
Video Diary #4 — The Dinner Scene
The Dinner Scene is one of the highlights of the show One Man, Two Guvnors. It is beautifully choregraphed slapstick comedy requiring split-second timing and many many props.
Video Diary #5 — Tech Rehearsal
'Tech rehearsal' stands for 'technical rehearsal'. In a tech rehearsal all the technical elements of a show - lights, sound, set, props, costume - are put together on stage for the first time. Tech rehearsals take several days and can mean lots of sitting around for the actors. In this video diary we get a glimpse backstage at the One Man, Two Guvnors tech rehearsal.
Video Diary #6 — Press Night
Press night is the first formal night of the show's run after previews. All the theatre critics are invited to see the show and many of them will write reviews. Everyone gets excited and nervous before press night. Good reviews can mean a sell out show. See the cast of One Man, Two Guvnors getting ready for press night.
Here are a few excerpts from reviews, with links to the full articles:
"But what makes the show a triumph is its combination of visual and verbal comedy. Bean and his director, Nicholas Hytner, have managed to make the dinner scene funnier than ever by adding a character: an octogenarian waiter, magnificently played by Tom Edden, whose hand alarmingly quivers as he serves a tureen of soup and who has an amazing capacity to fall backwards down stairs and return like a rubber ball."
Full review is here.
"Aided by physical theater expert and associate director Cal McCrystal, director Nicholas Hytner expertly harnesses that comedy energy to build a tight, towering succession of character shtick, sight gags, slapstick and chase sequences unseen since "Noises Off." All of which prepares everyone for the play's most famous scene. Desperate to keep his masters apart, Henshall is forced to serve dinner to them separately but simultaneously. But Bean and Hytner go one better, adding in a new-to-the-job, 87-year-old deaf waiter with the shakes, played by Tom Fedden as a magnificently doddering disaster-zone replete with jaw-dropping comedy pratfalls."
Full review is here.
Sketches on Theatre
"Hytner strikes the perfect balance between slick comedy and potential chaos and nails the infamous central banquet scene. Corden screeches across the stage, skidding on food and nearly sending the decrepit butler to his (late) grave. It's a bit like watching Faulty Towers on fast forward with the sound at full blast."
Full review is here.
New York Times
"If you’re allergic to British farce as practiced by the likes of Benny Hill and depicted in the “Carry On” movies, Two Guvnors may well have you sneezing convulsively. And yet I – who have always switched channels whenever anything remotely Benny Hill-ish crossed my television screen – found myself succumbing to the glazed rapture that spread throughout the audience on Friday night. That audience, by the way, included the actors Jonathan Pryce, Imelda Staunton and Patricia Hodge, and the Booker Prize-winning novelist Howard Jacobson. Crude, rude and socially unattractive, One Man, Two Guvnors is, my dear, the chicest ticket in town."
Full review is here.
"Driven by the dictates of his empty stomach and bewilderment over his duties, Corden displays great natural gifts for physical clowning – whether picking a fight with himself that is a mad paroxysm of auto-pugilism or, in a sequence that could be called a tour de farce, dishing lunch to his two masters in separate rooms of The Cricketers' Arms, a challenge not helped by a doddery, cadaverous, 87-year-old fellow-waiter with a pacemaker, balance problems and an ongoing relationship with the staircase that its roughly that of rubbish to chute. One Man, Two Guvnors, one massive hit."
Full review is here.
Seeing the Play in London:
The National Theatre run is sold out, but if you're there between now and September 19th, you can see the show for only £10, or £5 standing room. A limited number of day tickets (check schedule since it doesn't play every day) go on sale at 9:30 a.m. I've been doing this since 1970, when I got off the plane early in the morning, headed to the National, and nabbed a £10 ticket to see Laurence Olivier play Shylock in A Merchant of Venice. I'm still doing that four decades later! I usually get there 45–60 minutes early, but for a big hit like this, at least 90 minutes would be safer; bring a book! These cheap day tickets are only at the National Theatre and will not be available for the West End run.
Seeing the Play in a Movie Theatre Near You!?
On September 15th you can see a live telecast of this production in select movie theatres in cities acros the globe. Maybe there's a venue near you. The web site's a bit confusing, but apparently in NYC it will be screened on September 21 at Skirball NYU... but maybe elsewhere on the 15th?!? I know I'll be there, hopefully on the right night.
• The National Theatre web page for this production
• You can download the script for Goldoni's Servant of Two Masters on this recent blog post and learn more about Giorgio Strehler's famous production here.
• You can buy the script for One Man, Two Guvnors here.