One Man, Two Guvnors
Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin
It has kept him occupied for close to three centuries, but the hilariously hungry, opportunistic servant of two masters is still no better at doing two things at once.
You couldn’t say the same thing about Richard Bean’s adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s 1746 play, though. It’s an ingenious multitasker that revives the stock characters of commedia dell’arte, while revisiting the nostalgic tropes of British comedy – two forms that, like the servant’s separate employers, continually threaten to bump into one another and are destined to meet.
Bean's servant is Francis Henshall, expertly played in this touring production from the National Theatre London by the portly and athletic Gavin Spokes, transposed to 1960s Brighton. Employment opportunities are clearly high for the failed skiffle player. He is first retained by Roscoe Crabbe, a Cray Brothers-like hoodlum who is, in fact, Roscoe's twin sister, Rachel (a nicely louche Alicia Davies), intent on claiming her dead brother's dowry so she can elope with his killer. (It's not actually that complicated.)
Next, he is hired by that killer, Stanley Stubbers, an upper-class toff on the run, and as he keeps his double jobbing a secret, governed by his appetite, his errands become ludicrously entangled. (It's not actually that simple.)
Really, though, director Nicholas Hytner's production, refreshed here by Adam Penford, is a platform for gags, both sharp and lame, and the frisson of audience involvement and improvisation. It is where commedia and slapstick meet. "This is a National Theatre production," Spokes calls to an audience member when interaction takes a surprising turn, "not a bloody panto."
Yet that is the exact fault line that they wickedly pursue, and, like Francis, it pivots continually between clever respectability and guilty pleasure.
It works more often than it fails: the first act concludes with a virtuoso slapstick sequence in a restaurant kitchen, a set up so hoary that the execution has to be this dazzling. The humour is knowing, though: characters frequently call out a cliche before succumbing to it. “Calling a woman ‘gorgeous’ is patronising and chauvinist,” Emma Barton’s Dolly tells us, a model of pneumatic portrayal, “but I fancy him rotten.”
That also lets Bean – who weathered charges of racist depiction for his earlier play England People Very Nice – indulge in the casual sexism, homophobia and xenophobia of so much classic British humour, under the flag of irony. Does that make it better, then – or much worse?
There is something so contentedly artificial in Mark Thompson’s design of pop-up book layers, in tongue-twister dialogue, Brighton pier throwbacks and Monty Python techniques, or in the charming live skiffle band that covers every scene change, that it’s hard to take offence and much easier to find pleasure. That a show can seem at once so innocent and so loaded is a trick that Francis, the hungry harlequin, must envy: to have your cake and eat it.