The funniest play on the planet finally lands in Melbourne, with the fully imported cast and production in tiptop form. This hilarious update of Goldoni’s A Servant of Two Masters is a comedy of the highest order, with Richard Bean’s cleverly updated script and Nicholas Hytner’s energetic direction providing equal measures of nonstop hilarity.
Bonny Brighton of 1963 is portrayed as home to a seething underbelly of gangsters and good time girls. The engagement party of Pauline and Alan is interrupted by the return of the presumed-murdered homosexual hood Roscoe Crabbe, whom she was to marry as his societal cover. Roscoe’s minder Francis Henshall soon takes on a second employer in his increasingly desperate attempt to earn money for food to satisfy his voracious appetite. But it’s not all that easy for one man to serve two guvnors, especially when his dizzying hunger interferes with his memory, decency and common sense.
The brilliance of this finely calibrated comic confection comes in the flagrant intermingling of almost every conceivable comic style. The witty word play, tongue-twisting alliteration, outlandish twists and running jokes of the script are complemented by the sight gags, physical comedy, door slamming farce and slapstick of the direction. Throw in some devilish audience involvement and the result is a cavalcade of laughs in which you barely have a chance to catch your breath before the next onslaught.
Having honed his skills on the West End and on tour, Owain Arthur is fine form as frantic Francis, expending immeasurable energy in successfully playing the hugely demanding role. Aided by his cheeky accent, Arthur wins over the audience, easily conveying Francis’ inner voice with just a glance towards the house. While the plump frame of original portrayer James Corden was somewhat more convincing in conveying desperate hunger, Arthur manages a more energetically physical performance, the highpoint being Francis’ extended vicious fist fight with himself.
The touring cast, assembled for this tour of the UK and beyond, delight as the colourful supporting characters, each one more demented than the next. Mark Jackson is a hoot as ancient doddering waiter Alfie. Kellie Shirley nails the vacuous blonde innocence of Pauline. Edward Bennett goes to town with the outrageous viewpoints of vainly pompous, boarding school old boy Stanley Stubbers.
Leon Williams captures the self-centred angst of the early ‘60s as black-clad ‘actor’ Alan Dangle. Colin Mace and Nick Cavaliere add to the old world colour as ‘respectable’ cutthroats Charlie Clench and Harry Dangle. Amy Booth-Steel is all saucy curves as the feminist-when-it-suits-her Dolly.
Not only does the production boast the luxury of an additional six actors in the ensemble, but proceedings are also delightfully enhanced by four piece skiffle band The Craze. Be sure to enter the auditorium around ten minutes before curtain to enjoy the authentic flavour of Grant Olding’s songs, with more towards the end of interval as well. Scene changes are also covered by songs, in which the band is joined by cast members playing an impressively diverse range of instruments.
Mark Thompson’s set designs present a picture postcard Brighton of yore, with expert use of perspective to create three-dimensional effects. Costumes, also by Thompson, have a technicolor sparkle with touches of wit that add to the comic flavour.
Kudos to Arts Centre, Melbourne and Melbourne Theatre Company for hosting this visiting production, especially given the potential for local productions of overseas hits to misfire. One Man, Two Guvnors is a guaranteed winter warmer, certain to leave audiences laughing for days afterwards.
One Man, Two Guvnors plays at Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne until 22 June 2013.
Photos 1,2,4: Shane Bell
This review written for Theatre People 22 May 2013.