Review: One Man, Two Guvnors: A standing ovation

The National Theatre’s acclaimed comedy One Man, Two Guvnors kicked off its UK tour at the Lyceum Theatre in Sheffield

The National Theatre’s acclaimed comedy One Man, Two Guvnors kicked off its UK tour at the Lyceum Theatre in Sheffield this week. Based on an old commedia dell’arte piece by Carlo Goldioni, the play is set in Brighton in 1963, and tells the hilarious tale of One Man – Francis Henshall – who, after being fired from his skiffle band, finds himself secretly accepting employment from Two Guvnors – Roscoe Crabbe and Stanley Stubbers.

More than a simple concept

Unbeknown to Francis, Roscoe is really Rachel, who is in love with Stanley who just happens to have murdered her twin brother, and to top it all off Francis must keep his double employment secret if he wants to keep hold of his next paycheck.

It’s a simple enough concept once you’ve met the characters, but in the hands of a stunning cast, and with the National’s directorial talent in the form of original director Nicholas Hytner, and tour director Adam Penford, this fairly formulaic play becomes a whole new beast.

Sheffield ovation

The second-night Sheffield show raised a standing ovation from the crowd at its close, and although by-and-large the cast is impressive, you couldn’t help but feel that the applause was reserved for One Man: Gavin Spokes as the ridiculous Francis Henshall.

Stepping into James Corden’s acclaimed shoes is no mean feat, but Spokes turns a somewhat hit-and-miss script into a series of deliriously funny monologues, that can’t fail to raise a laugh from even the most stony-hearted of theatre-goers.

His ability to interact, apparently spontaneously, with those members of the audience foolish enough to sit in the front row, resulted in infectious laughter which occasionally halted the entry of the next character.

But as the show roved increasingly off-piste, a somewhat unfortunate moment occurred when his monologue demanding a sandwich was interrupted by a member of the audience who was, unbelievably, brandishing a sandwich.

Obviously flabbergasted, and through his own laughter, Spokes replied incredulously: “This is a National Theatre Production mate, not a pantomime!” drawing roars of laughter from the crowd, and precipitating a hairy few moments in which the cast struggled to paper over the cracks.

Enjoyable highlights

Sandwich-bearing audience members aside, there’s a sense with this production that the choreography, actors, and brilliant skiffle band The Craze, often have to carry the script. The slap-stick scenes, involving Henshall’s attempts to wait on his Two Guvnors with the aid of an 83-year-old, comically juddery, pacemaker-fitted Irish waiter on his first day on the job, are a sheer joy to watch.

Michael Dylan as the perpetually shaking Alfie is sublimely funny, and Patrick Warner as Stanley Stubbers plays the pompous boarding school graduate to perfection. But the play itself is not perfect.

A few of the jokes fell flat, and there are instances in which certain characters – most notably, the bimbo Dolly – could have benefited from a different direction, especially when delivering repetitive lines such as “I don’t understand!”

Such instances are funny once, but increasingly less so the more repeated and over-acted they become.

A show of two halves

The first act is certainly the highlight of the play, culminating in a delicious denouement involving flames, spilt wine, thrown water, and one unfortunate woman being sprayed with a fully-functioning fire extinguisher. By contrast, the second act, although enjoyable and peppered with similarly-hilarious moments, doesn’t manage to capture the same momentum as before.

There are instances in which the script doesn’t quite match the high-calibre of the  performances, and some one-liners simply didn’t resonate with the audience. Even so, One Man, Two Guvnors is a truly delightful physical comedy, with highlights that far outshine the occasional moments that don’t quite hit the mark.

The show runs at The Lyceum until Saturday the 24th of May, before continuing its tour of the UK and Ireland. If you missed it in London then it’s certainly one to see on tour – just as long as you don’t mind leaving the theatre with an endearingly goofy smile on your face, and a sense that the ridiculous has just become the sublime.

What do you think? Have you seen One Man, Two Guvnors? Have your say in the comments section below.