My good sir, he’s behind thee!

One Man, Two Guvnors is more of an entertainment show than a play – but should we be looking down on slapstick?

London Theatre. Hmm. I’m yet to be convinced by their offerings. Only a minority of West End theatres actually stage productions I could describe as theatre; most of the time it’s musicals with little interest in story or script and lots of interest in the spectacle and razzmatazz and celebrity names. Now, before anyone tries out out-pedant me and point out that the Royal National Theatre is not located in the West End part of London, yes, I am aware of that thank you very much. I am also aware that, unlike the West End, the National Theatre gets s subsidy which, in theory, allows it to take risks the West End can’t. But still, when you’re running large-scale productions in one of the most expensive areas of the country you have to keep one eye on the budget and ticket sales – arguably different from West End producers who have both eyes on the budget, but a constraint on artistic freedom nonetheless. Anyway, the National Theatre is current showcasing One Man, Two Guvnors to the country with a tour, having just completed its week-long run at the Newcastle Theatre Royal. So … does this justify my taxes?

This play is an adaptation of Carlo Goldini 18th-century classic The Servant of Two Masters. It’s a standard story of girl meets boy, boy meets girl, girl’s twin brother challenges boy to duel, boy kills prospective brother-in-law and flees to Venice, girl disguises herself as late twin bother to collect dowry money from his would-be-in-laws, late twin brother’s ex-betrothed gets engaged to new man, new man gets jealous when ex-fiancé (actually ex-fiancé’s twin sister, of course) shows on the scene. Just in case there’s insufficient scope for hilarious consequences, enter Truffaldino, a rather hungry servant who sneakily takes up employment with aforementioned boy and girl-dressed-as-boy, not realising they are looking for each other. Richard Bean transplants the story from 18th-century Venice to 1960s Brighton, and Truffaldino becomes the titular role of Francis Henshall. Unlike historical Italy, homicide by duelling is generally frowned up in 20th-century Britain, so the story takes place in the semi-seedy semi-underworld of the popular south coast resort, a society slightly more lenient with these sorts of discrepancies. Other than that, Richard Bean doesn’t seem to have fiddled with the story too much, with the core plot preserved in the adaptation.

With so many crimes against theatre committed in the West End, it’s probably fair to give credit where it is due. So … One Man, Two Guvnors doesn’t ruin the play by casting celebrities in the main parts who can’t act (Rufus Hound as the lead is admittedly a big name in comedy and television rather than theatre, but you wouldn’t guess that seeing him on stage); it doesn’t piggy-back successes in film and music and takes things to the stage that aren’t suited to it; it doesn’t use dazzling special effects as a substitute for a story; and it doesn’t make the production into a musical just for the sake of it (there is live music between the scenes written for the play, but the balance is about right). Even with the cuts to arts subsidies, no sign yet of the National pandering to the commercial demands of its north-of-Thames neighbours.

And – crucially – the play offers you something for your money. The ongoing problem I have with the Theatre Royal, and the sort of productions that go to the Theatre Royal, is the cost. I have trouble seeing the point of watching, say, an Agatha Christie when I know a smaller theatre could do just as good a job for half the price. This play settles the argument by doing something you can only do in a big-budget production. It is defined by the slapstick, and director Nicholas Hyter times and choreographs it to comic perfection. (This is slightly spoilt by the main slapstick scene needlessly using a plant in the audience, but that doesn’t detract from the directing.) Often in musicals you can scrap half the chorus, the complicated set changes and extended dance sequences and still do a good production focusing on what matters, but it’s hard to imagine this play being the same without the slapstick they’ve worked so hard to put in.

However, whilst slapstick is this play’s biggest strength, it’s also it’s biggest weakness. There’s a simple problem – when you look past all the crashing into each other and innuendo and audience participation, and instead think about what actually happened in the play, the honest answer is: “not a lot”. If you are hoping for comedy as a vehicle for any kind of depth – like political comment, characters you can empathise with, dark undertones, complex human relationships – you’ve probably chosen the wrong play. Being brutally honest, it would probably take three minutes to explain the storyline in full detail. You can almost look on this play as a pantomime (albeit without the annoying side-effect of hordes of excitable screaming children which is about to be inflicted on us). All that was missing was bit where we shout “Behind you!”

But before we get too haughty about this, let’s keep this in context. Richard Bean is simply being faithful to the original author’s intentions. A common assumption of centuries-old plays, in particular Shakespeare, is that every line is packed full of hidden meaning and subtle wit – and if you don’t get it then it’s your fault for not understanding the text properly. But you don’t have to look far into Shakespeare’s work to notice that he wasn’t always writing the heart-rending climax of a doomed king or two star-crossed lovers; the rest of the time, it was people falling over and cheap nob gags. The language dates, and modern audiences don’t always follow the original text, but from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Goldini to the Carry On films, the infantile jokes have broadly stayed the same. And why not? The people who went to the original Globe Theatre or Venetian Theatre didn’t go out to be cultured, they went to have good time, and usually a good laugh. It takes a lot of revisionism to claim that’s not what classic theatre is about.

However, in a modern context of what we expect on stage, One Man, Two Guvnors is borderline between theatre and entertainment. It avoids the gag-driven plot that renders many comedies painfully unfunny, but neither is this a comedy that makes you think, or wonder what happens next, or care for the outcome. As such, if your idea of the comedy is the kind favoured by playwrights such as Ayckbourn or Godber whose strength is mixing ceomdy and drama, this may not be the play for you. But if you’re after something undemanding, fun, and comedy comedy comedy all the way, you won’t be disappointed.

One Man, Two Guvnors continues touring the UK until 2 February, including Leeds on 11 – 15 December.