I didn't really know a lot about One Man, Two Guvnors prior to seeing it, and it's not normally the kind of show I'm drawn to. Based on the 18th Century Italian comedy The Servant Of Two Masters by Carlo Goldoni, it appeared to be bigger, shinier and more mainstream than my usual thing. Also, there appeared to be songs in it and I don't generally like musicals.
However, I remember somehow ending up at a big production of The Producers – a very shiny mainstream show – years ago and being surprised to find that I really enjoyed it, so who knows?
Besides, look at all the five star reviews this thing was getting. Seriously, from London's West End to Broadway, this has been knocking socks off with one blurb stating that it's “the funniest show on the planet.” I don't remember the last time I saw such unanimous praise for a big production. Emphasis was on the humour, and when the Brits get humour right they can be the best in the world. Right?
Richard Bean's version of the story is set in the beach-side city of Brighton, back in the early 60s. Francis is out of pocket and scores a job as a gangster's minder, then another job as another gangster's minder, the second one being the girlfriend of the first. She is posing as her identical twin brother who has been murdered by the first gangster/boyfriend. What follows is more than two hours of slapstick farce, misunderstandings and mistaken identities – and no it's not a musical but a comedy with musical interludes, skiffle sets to fill in set changes. Other random music interludes occur throughout, perhaps harking back to the UK's music hall past.
Despite the entire cast delivering solid performances (stand-outs being Owain Arthur as the minder and Mark Jackson as the geriatric waiter), I found the entire first hour to be a bit lacklustre. Yes it's setting up the convoluted plot and yes we are getting to know all of the characters, but I just felt I was watching naïve comedy from a bygone era. Something about Arthur's physical comedy reminded me a little of Lou Costello (not a bad thing) and the ghosts of Benny Hill and the cast from On The Buses and the Carry On movies seemed to be very near. Slapstick can be comedy gold, but it can also be schoolboy dumb – as with the scene where Arthur stuffs his mouth with food then sprays it in the face of another character as he attempts to talk. Sorry, but that is not five star comedy.
The last half hour of the first act had me (finally) rolling about with laughter. Most of the audience had been laughing up to this point; now it was roaring. It was a long scene of confusion, pratfalls and door-slamming that just lifted things to another level. The physical jokes of the old waiter were brilliantly executed, to the extent that his mere appearance had the audience laughing in anticipation.
However I even had issues with this, what would turn out to be the highlight of the show. The fourth wall was repeatedly broken. The script was dropped on occasion as spontaneous banter with audience members took place... or did it? Apparently Goldoni's original play left room in sections for adlibbing, and that appeared to be what was going on here, but my suspicion of audience plants were confirmed, revealing that cast members apparently losing it and struggling to control their laughter (drawing more audience laughter) were also carefully scripted. I don't know how to feel about this. I went along for the ride, but there was still a feeling of being played. The device of comedians apparently losing it to laughter to elicit more laughter is a well known one and just seems like a cheap way of getting laughs... a fall-back when you can't get laughs by other means. At least in the end they were up front about things by having one of the audience plants openly being part of the cast as they took their bows.
Intermission, more skiffle band music and unfortunately we had seen the highlight. The momentum was lost and we were back to more of the same of the bulk of the first act.
There were some great moments – when Arthur's acrobatic body double accidentally appeared on stage at the same time as Arthur (deft, fleeting, very funny), and possibly my favourite scene was when one of the female characters stopped amid the madness to daydream of a time in the not too distant future when England would be ruled by a kind and loving female Prime Minister... it was unexpected, more subtle than the rest of the jokes, and probably more unintentionally relevant to Australian audiences (given our own PM's obsession with gender) than some of the other Australian references.
In the end, I honestly don't get what all the five star reviews are about. I wanted to like this show, I really did, and I love good humour, but One Man, Two Guvnors just didn't do it for me. It's a style of comedy that apparently everyone in the entire world except me appreciates. If you're not so into the Carry On style of humour, treat with caution.
MTC presents a National Theatre of Great Britain production
One Man, Two Guvnors
by Richard Bean | songs by Grant Olding | based on The Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldoni
Director Nicholas Hytner
Venue: Arts Centre Melbourne, Playhouse
Dates: 17 May – 22 June, 2013
Tickets: $55.00 – $139.00