A transatlantic transplant can be a tricky thing, but after highly successful runs at The National Theatre and London’s West End, One Man, Two Guvnors opens this week on Broadway. An adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s Servant of Two Masters by British playwright Richard Bean, the play is set in Brighton in the 1960s. When the curtain rises, we find ourselves in the living room of small-time gangster Charlie “The Duck” Clench (Fred Ridgeway), who is celebrating the engagement of his daughter Pauline (Claire Lams) to her lover, Alan (Daniel Rigby). Ten minutes of thickly accented dialogue later and we realize that nothing in the show is quite that straight. Combining punchy dialogue, amusing slapstick and plenty of genital humor, the elements make for an entertaining night of theater.
True to the tradition of Commedia dell’Arte, all of the characters in One Man, Two Guvnors are one dimensional, with singular motivations and often predictable actions. The performances are practiced but not stale. James Corden, who plays the lead Francis Henshall, heads the charge with charm and loads of deft improvisation. Corden has played this role more than 200 times and seems anything but bored of it. His delivery is punchy, confident and fresh. Francis’s frequent banter with the audience blends script and improv to remarkable effect. Indeed, some of the show’s best moments were (seemingly) unscripted.
The physical comedy in this show is part of its soul. Hits and falls abound thanks to Cal McCrystal’s choreography and Nicholas Hytner’s direction. At the end of the first act, Francis must serve dinner simultaneously to both of his guvnors in two different rooms, without either of them knowing that he is under the employ of both of them. It’s during this scene that we meet Alfie (Tom Edden), an octogenarian who is working his first day as a waiter. Edden wears a distorted expression reminiscent of Christopher Lloyd’s fright face in Back to the Future. He mugs, stumbles and pratfalls his way through dinner service in a performance that is top rate and unforgettable.
One Man, Two Guvnors seems well suited to its new home at the Music Box Theatre, and Mark Thompson’s set design is simple but exceptional. His use of exaggerated perspective and a painted proscenium are just the right context for the production’s cartoonish vaudeville. A fictional rock quartet, The Craze, fronted by Jason Rabinowitz, takes the stage and provides cover during scene changes.
If the producers of One Man, Two Guvnors had any fears about the show’s distinctly British humour translating to an American audience, they should rest at ease. Even the Margaret Thatcher jokes from delivered by Suzie Toase (as Dolly) got a hearty laugh. One Man, Two Guvnors is funny, fresh and a ticket you won’t regret. Regardless of its roots, it’s Broadway slapstick at its best.