The National Theatre at Home series gets off to an outrageous and cheery start with One Man, Two Guvnors. The 2011 production, starring James Corden, still conjures up laughter despite its rather disorientating and at times overwhelming plot. Corden plays Francis Henshall, a geezer with an insatiable appetite hired by two ‘guvnors’ at the same time. One is Rachel Crabbe (Atlantis’ Jemima Rooper), posing as her brother Roscoe Crabbe, who was murdered by her love interest Stanley Stubbers (Oliver Chris of the Bridge’s A Midsummer Night Dream), the second boss.
“I don’t understand”, to use a quote by Pauline (Claire Lams), is perhaps the best way to describe some of the character relations, but they all intertwine in one way or another which makes it an incredible group effort. In the lead role, Corden quickly wins us over with a string of impressive feats from grape-catching to xylophone-playing (as part of the jolly skiffle band The Craze, who play between scene changes). He perfectly enhances the clear momentum director Nicholas Hytner wanted with the piece – not so much breaking the fourth wall but smashing it to pieces (see the shocking conclusion to Act One involving Christine Paterson), and delivering several wild and ridiculous tangents at break-neck speed, one of the favourites being a bonkers argument and fight with himself over his handling of an ever-growing web of lies.
Elsewhere, Chris is baffling as Stubbers, his outburst of posh boy phrases of the ‘great scott’ kind like ‘winerama’ are so brilliantly daft, as is Daniel Rigby (Black Mirror) as Shakespeare-loving actor Alan, his exaggerated lunges and clenched fingers serving as a humorous warning that another monologue is on the way. A lot of the characters are hyperbolic in nature, of course, but Hytner does well to ensure that not one role overshadows the other, or become ‘too much’ – if that’s ever something to consider in a melodrama like this.
Plus, there are tamer roles to balance out the heightened personalities, not least in a scene involving shaking, zombie-like waiter Alfie (Tom Edden), who becomes caught up in Henshall’s balancing act. The way in which he moves across Mark Thompson’s cardboard-like stage with a such a slowing pace feels out-of-place in an otherwise snowballing production, but – as I’m sure Francis would agree – it probably comes down to taste, and I think in times like this, most people will find the comedy irresistible and much-needed.
One Man, Two Guvnors played at the Lyttelton Theatre from 17 May 2011 to 19 September 2011. It is available to watch online for free on the National Theatre’s YouTube channel until 9 April.
Production Images: Johan Persson.