One Man, Two Guvnors | National Theatre of Great BritainLeft – Owain Arthur. Cover – Owain Arthur and Rosie Wyatt. Photos – Lisa Tomasetti

At first, one might wonder why Richard Bean’s 2011 adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s 1743 play The Servant of Two Masters should set its modernisation almost fifty years prior in 1963 Brighton, but it is quite clear that this is a show where all the elements fit together rather perfectly.

There is actually a certain brilliance in adapting this material in such a manner. The core concept, it would seem, is less the transposition of Goldoni’s plot into a modern time period as much as to a more familiar theatrical genre. Adopting a style of British stage comedy that is part old-school Music Hall, Vaudeville and a dash of Panto, it is a type of performer-centric, gag-heavy farce that has largely died out, or has in this country at any rate, with echoes of the selfconscious camp of the Carry On films and the flavor of later self-aware plays like Noises Off.

The Sixties, I suspect, may not have been an arbitrary point in time, despite its ongoing aesthetic popularity as the decade for “retro” narratives at the moment. Or rather, it may have been seen as the era that represents the outer limits of when this type of slapsticky, nudge-nudge stage farce was still in vogue. In any case, it strikes me as a rather inspired transition. Having seen the hysterically good local adaptation by Nick Enright and Ron Blair for Bell Shakespeare several years ago, Goldoni’s style of rapid-fire farce in which our archetypically buffoonish lead constantly addresses the audience seems to fit perfectly behind the footlights of mid-20th Century British stage romps.

Like most good farces, it is a relatively simple set up which becomes more and more complicated by successive plot contrivances, until everything is spinning uproariously out of control. Central to this chaos is Francis, a dim, earthy chap that just wants a good feed (who, in one of the shows many metatheatrical moments acknowledges his own derivation from the Commedia dell'arte stock character of Arlecchino), but unwisely decides to enter the employ of two shady masters at the same time. Keeping their respective orders, missives, money and secrets separate and discreet is a task Francis is woefully under-qualified to keep mentally juggling. Needless to say things only get worse when it turns out that his two ‘Guvs’ are, unbeknownst to each other, inextricably linked… as is inevitably the case with these kinds of classic comedy plots.

However, cleverly orchestrated as it may be, the story isn’t really the point here. One Man, Two Guvnors is all about the gags and their execution. While backed by an exemplary ensemble, the weight of the show is squarely shouldered by the charm and comedic talents of its leading man. Much as the clowning genius of Darren Gilshenan in the Bell Shakespeare version had kept audiences in utter hysterics, here Owain Arthur as Francis proved every inch the consummate stage comic, having the opening night crowd just about eating out of the palm of his hand.

Perfectly balancing the character’s heightened retro characterisation with the frequent ruptures of the fourth wall, he delighted in slickly improvising running gags through unexpected interactions with the crowd, going beyond scripted asides, all the way through to coaxing patrons up on stage for some hilarious antics. His ease with the audience, and his occasional tendency to seemingly “corpse” (laugh outside of the script) all contribute to the sense of a wild, slightly out-of-control performance, yet I suspect it is by and large all part of the act. While these diegetic breaks often acknowledge that what we are seeing is a play, Arthur never seems to entirely break character so much as appear at time complicit with the audience in enjoying the meta-humour.

The entire cast is jolly good, it should be said, with not a sour note between them. Particularly praiseworthy were the other principals, the arch Edward Bennett as the intermittently perverse Stanley Stubbers, and feisty Rosie Wyatt as the disguised Rachel Crabbe, Francis’ titular two masters, and as his love-interest Dolly, the formidably sassy Amy Booth-Steel. All had wonderful comic timing and headed a clearly very well-oiled ensemble.

With a canny script, deceptively simple yet wonderfully executed set-pieces and a rollicking sense of fun punctuated by a live band for the scene transitions, this is cheekily broad humour at its best. It may be a tad old-fashioned for some perhaps, but I would hazard that it would take a severely dour punter indeed to sit through this avalanche of mirth without cracking a smile, much less a barrage of hearty guffaws.

Sydney Theatre Company presents
A National Theatre of Great Britain production
by Richard Bean | based on The Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldoni

Director Nicholas Hytner

Venue: Sydney Theatre | 22 Hickson Road, Walsh Bay NSW
Dates: 30 Mar - 11 May, 2013
Tickets: $105 – $75

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