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.