This season, the king of fools on Broadway may well be James Corden. The slapstick farce and British vaudevillian merriment galloping throughout the exuberant music-hall comedy, “One Man, Two Guvnors,” are a perfect fit for Corden’s range of expressive comedic abilities.
The Music Box Theatre rang with repeated shouts of laughter at one preview, so apparently American theater-goers also love the earthy, silly British humor that pervades this hilarious London import, which opened Wednesday night at Broadway’s Music Box theater.
Playwright Richard Bean based his plot on Carlo Goldoni’s 18th-century Commedia dell’Arte farce, “The Servant of Two Masters,” updating the action to the British seaside town of Brighton in the early 1960s. Bean and director Sir Nicholas Hytner have made further tweaks to accommodate the unfamiliarity of most Americans with some British expressions. It’s been said our two countries are divided by a common language, but the joyous laughter emanating from this production could reunite them at last.
Staged by Hytner with close attention to farcical nuance, the extremely accomplished original British cast animatedly sends up the politically incorrect, often-bawdy jokes and stereotypes of that bygone era, aided by frequent audience participation and interludes of peppy skiffle music.
Tuneful songs by Grant Olding are performed by tight-suited, onstage boy-band, The Craze, (actually four American musicians) and set the right tone of lightness to support the improbable proceedings. Together with Mark Thompson’s cartoon-like set and snappy period costumes, the bright look and sound are perfect for the onslaught of puns, risque double-entendres and merry pratfalls that whiz by.
Corden is the chief clown, Goldoni’s Harlequin, happily enacting hungry, hapless Francis Henshall. Francis is a down-at-his-heels, would-be manservant who overtaxes his limited mental capacity by simultaneously working for two demanding bosses (the guvnors), both criminals on the lam. Typical of his loose grasp on reality is his tendency, when confused, to eat important mail instead of delivering it.
Some Americans who watch public television will know Corden for his comedic brilliance on the British TV show “Gavin & Stacey,” which he also created and co-wrote. Much slimmer now, Corden spends the duration of “One Man” racing frenziedly around the stage, gleefully jesting with the audience and getting some to participate in the antics.
His open, friendly face flickers wildly with emotion, quickly endearing him to the crowd, which roars with approval at the silly jokes and actions, and at his evident delight in performing them. Corden seems to be a combination of both Laurel and Hardy, especially when he has a wild fight with himself, as Francis argues with his imaginary Irish twin, Paddy. Since both of them fight dirty, it’s only thanks to physical comedy director Cal McCrystal that nobody gets hurt during this or any of the other frequent slapstick moments. Most of the time, anyhow.
The talent-rich cast includes a memorable turn by Oliver Chris, smug perfection as mindlessly hearty criminal Stanley Stubbers. With aplomb, Chris tosses off ribald boarding-school jokes and nonsensical metaphors, exclaiming enthusiastically at one point, “Wrap his balls in bacon and send him to the nurse!”
Jemima Rooper is adorably fierce as Rachel Crabbe, who’s in cross-dressing disguise as gangster Roscoe, her dead twin brother. Rachel and Stanley are deeply in love and hoping to be reunited, even though Stanley just murdered Roscoe. They unknowingly share the services of Francis, who wrongly thinks he must keep his two bosses apart.
Daniel Rigby is a delight as intensely self-important Alan Dangle, a leather-clad would-be actor. Leaping on and off the stage while striking absurd theatrical poses, Dangle defends his beloved fiancee, the very dim Pauline Clench (Claire Lams), by declaring with florid sincerity things like, “She is pure, innocent, unsoiled by education, like a new bucket!”
Tom Edden is a real scene-stealer as trembling, elderly waiter, Alfie. Edden provides endless fodder for cheap laughs as he skillfully staggers around the stage during the justly famous, extremely funny dinner service scene, taking violent hits from doors or flying backwards down the stairs. Suzie Toase is warm and winking as Francis’ love interest, busty bookkeeper Dolly. The rest of the distinguished cast includes Martyn Ellis, Fred Ridgeway as Charlie “the Duck” Clench, Trevor Laird, and Ben Livingston.
The action slows down slightly in the second act, but the entire production is so memorably hilarious that it could be deemed a two-hanky weepie — for tears of laughter.
Can we keep James Corden in New York for good? The young British actor headlining the London import “One Man, Two Guvnors” at the Music Box is so mad talented, adorable and hilarious that you just want more of him. Hello, Actors Equity?
Writer Richard Bean based the show on Carlo Goldoni’s 1746 Venetian play, “The Servant of Two Masters.” He moved the action to 1960s Brighton, England, and came up with a combo of farce and classic comedy types, music-hall entertainment, pantomime and audience participation. It’s a bit like “The Carol Burnett Show” meets “I Love Lucy.”
At the center of the tomfoolery is Corden, nimbly fast-talking, flim-flamming and pratfalling as the hapless, hungry, easily frazzled Francis Henshall, who becomes the gofer for not one, but two shady characters.
Before and during the play, a quartet called the Craze sets the mood with chipper songs by Grant Olding. The band’s name is a cheeky nod to the Krays — British brothers Reggie and Ronnie Kray — gangsters who could’ve inspired the curvy plot about a dead crook and his twin sis disguised in drag. Factor in goofy chases, star-crossed romances and countless zingers — as when someone declares “I need a clean shirt. I smell like a doctor’s finger” — and you’ve got yourself some fun. Mark Thompson’s colorful costumes and kicky sets are clever complements.
Admittedly, the ears need time to adjust to some heavy accents and the story takes a good while to click into gear and hum. It does so precisely when Francis arrives. The side-splitting scene comes when Fran and Alfie, a wild-eyed, crazy-coifed waiter more jittery than a jackhammer, serve his guvnors (slang for boss) a seven-course meal. You have to applaud director Nicholas Hytner and Cal McCrystal, who headed up the physical antics. They’re masters of comic detail — big and small.
The cast comprises Brits reprising lead roles they played at England’s National Theatre and the West End and Americans in small parts. Oliver Chris is deliciously daft as one guv; a gender-bending Jemima Rooper is sharp and sexy as the other.
Also deserving shoutouts: Suzie Toase, who plays Francis’ frisky crush, Dolly; Daniel Rigby, in the role of a preening actor, and Tom Edden, a hysterical mix of Marty Feldman and Tim Conway as Alfie.
What “One Man” is all about, of course, is Francis. Corden’s Broadway debut was a small role in “The History Boys.” Six years later, he announces himself a blazing star. Hail to the clown prince of this royal scream.
The humor in the new Broadway farce “One Man, Two Guvnors” is so broad, you could drive an 18-wheeler through it — which the actors gleefully do, at 100 mph and without seat belts.
Pratfalls, spit takes, puns, improvisation, winking asides, slamming doors, clowning, audience participation, double entendres and triple takes: “One Man, Two Guvnors” leaves no comic stone unturned.
And mercifully, this production, from London’s National Theatre — brought over with its original cast — doesn’t bother with any underlying message or grand statement. These guys just want one thing, and it’s to make us laugh. They succeed brilliantly.
It helps that the play has a good bone structure. Author Richard Bean borrowed it from Carlo Goldoni’s 1746 comedy “The Servant of Two Masters,” which he reset among small-time crooks in 1963 Brighton. That English beach resort has a big music-hall tradition, which Bean and director Nicholas Hytner (“The History Boys”) giddily draw from, along with “Benny Hill” and the “Carry On” movies. There’s even a live skiffle band.
The servant is now one Francis Henshall (the explosive James Corden), a hapless glutton always on the lookout for his next snack. He signs up to work for two employers: posh, idiotic killer Stanley Stubbers (Oliver Chris) and Rachel Crabbe (Jemima Rooper), who’s in drag pretending to be her dead twin brother.
Francis must prevent them from learning about each other, which of course leads to mayhem.
Add a full rack of assorted eccentrics, and you have a great frame on which Bean and company string jokes and gags like so many Christmas baubles.
Some lines are so absurd, they make you shake your head in disbelief — and crack up.
“Wrap his balls in bacon and send him to the nurse!” Stanley orders Francis.
“I need a clean shirt,” Rachel says. “I smell like a doctor’s finger.”
But it’s Corden who sets the first act on fire, throwing himself into Francis’ idiocy with relish. He eats an envelope, catapults backward over an armchair. No wonder the show has a separate “physical comedy director” (Cal McCrystal).
This kind of pace is hard to sustain, though.
Referring to a stock character in commedia dell’arte — the play’s Italian roots — Francis muses, “If the Harlequin, that’s me, has now eaten, what will be his motivation in the second act?”
Good question. Buxom feminist bookkeeper Dolly (Suzie Toase) emerges as a love interest, but in Francis’ world, the heart matters less than the stomach.
The ballast the paunchy chap provided earlier is missed. But the show has such a deep bench that the supporting cast — including Daniel Rigby as a grandiose would-be actor and Tom Edden as a calamitous elderly waiter — expertly picks up the slack.
Some cynics wondered if “One Man, Two Guvnors” might be too British for New Yorkers. Happily, people tripping over themselves and making faces is funny everywhere.
It’s a rich, slow-spreading smile, like butter melting in a skillet over a low flame. And whenever it creeps across James Corden’s face in the splendidly silly “One Man, Two Guvnors,” which opened on Wednesday night at the Music Box Theater, you know two things for sure: You’re in for trouble, and you’re already hooked. Struggle as you will, there ain’t nothing you can do about it.
That smile captures the essence of “One Man, Two Guvnors,” Richard Bean’s inspired adaptation of an 18th-century Italian farce by Carlo Goldoni, directed by Nicholas Hytner. A runaway hit in London, where it originated at the National Theater, “One Man” is, like Mr. Corden’s grin, both satanic and seraphic, dirty-minded and utterly innocent. Letting loose and neutralizing all sorts of demons, it’s ideal escapism for anxious times.
Mr. Corden, a comic star in Britain who seems poised to become one here in short order, portrays Francis Henshall, a round and hungry young man who finds himself working for two different employers at the same time. His motivations throughout this corkscrew tale of scrambled identities, set in the seaside town of Brighton in the early 1960s, are as primal as his appetites: He wants food, and he wants a girl. But if the reasons for his actions are simple, the consequences of them are anything but. For this ingenuous, calmly addled creature is chaos incarnate.
Young Francis, you see, is an old, old soul — at least as old as commedia dell’arte, the improvisational, Renaissance-era comedy of confusion that inspired Goldoni’s “Servant of Two Masters. ” It, in turn, has been translated with a cheeky fluency by Mr. Bean and Mr. Hytner as a balm for stressed-out 21st-century audiences.
Do you want to know the plot? O.K., you asked for it. (You can skip the next two paragraphs if you didn’t.) Francis is the all-purpose assistant of Roscoe Crabbe (a piquant Jemima Rooper), a switchblade-wielding tough, who is engaged to the dim but lovely Pauline Clench (Claire Lams), who really loves the actorly actor Alan Dangle (Daniel Rigby).
Clear on all that? Good. Except you need to know that Roscoe isn’t Roscoe but Rachel, his twin sister in disguise. The real Roscoe was killed by Rachel’s beloved, Stanley Stubbers (Oliver Chris), a Bertie Wooster-like toff, who decides to hire Francis (unbeknownst to Roscoe/Rachel), who has come to fancy the curvaceous Dolly (Suzie Toase), who works for Pauline’s father, Charlie (the Duck) Clench (Fred Ridgeway).
Add to this mix a sesquipedalian lawyer (Martyn Ellis), an Anglo-African pub owner (Trevor Laird) and a couple of wild-card waiters (Ben Livingston and Tom Edden). And voilà! You have before you a funhouse mirror of Goldoni’s parade of fools, lovers, clowns, parents and pompous asses.
Placing this motley crew in the particular time and place where we find them was a brilliant choice. Brighton is the middle-class resort (then running to seed) from which countless naughty postcards have been mailed. (Mark Thompson’s set and costumes have the postcards’ sweetly smutty flavor.) As for the time (the summer of ’63), well, it’s in the salad days of Swinging England, innit?, when a heady new sense of license scents the air, but the full rot of decadence hasn’t set in. Its sound is expressed most infectiously by a scene-bridging band called the Craze (Jason Rabinowitz, Austin Moorhead, Charlie Rosen and Jacob Colin Cohen, singing numbers by Grant Olding), which gradually morphs from a rockabilly quartet into something mighty like the Fab Four.
The Craze, by the way, is a homonym for the Krays, the sinister twin brothers who once ruled the London underworld. And the band’s punning name reflects the show’s more general conversion of things dangerous into giddy midsummer madness.
The forms this madness takes are as rowdy as the Three Stooges and as light-footed as Fred Astaire. Farce, if it’s any good, is a delicate business. And Mr. Hytner and Cal McCrystal, the physical comedy director, keep their cast on a taut tightrope between order and disorder.
Yes, food is flung, trousers are dropped and bawdy innuendoes are exchanged. (Mr. Edden is the show’s master of pratfalls as a geriatric waiter with a new pacemaker.) Yet for me at least, this production never justifies that sinking sensation that arrives when I hear the words “British comedy.” Mr. Hytner and Mr. Bean have woven elements of music hall slapstick, “Carry On”-movie-style bawdiness and Monty Python-esque absurdity into a remarkably fine mesh.
The language is fueled by a logic that is as irrefutable as it is silly. The script takes time to consider the semantic and class distinctions between someone who smells “like a horse” and “of horses.” It gleefully skewers the tortured metaphors of lovers’ flights of fancy and traffics unapologetically in the childish, tongue-twisting pleasures of alliteration. (“He was diagnosed with diarrhea but died of diabetes in Dagenham.”)
Occasionally “One Man” peers naïvely into the future to imagine a time-to-be when a female prime minister ends the British class struggle and portable phones make life less complicated. And without losing its galloping stride, the play dares to comment disarmingly on its own artificial nature.
The ensemble is as fresh as when I saw the production at the National in London last summer. (It has since transferred to the West End, and now has a new cast.) Mr. Rigby, as the histrionic young actor, and Mr. Chris, as the fatuous aristo, offer priceless vivisections of two specimens of comic manhood, while Ms. Toase slyly exploits the pneumatic charms of the “Carry On” heroines like the immortal Barbara Windsor.
But above all there is Mr. Corden, whose portly person is the very embodiment of this show’s artful anarchy. It is Mr. Corden who both anchors this self-contained reality and dissolves it at will. Yes, the fourth wall is violated in improvisation with theatergoers, the most delicious I’ve ever seen on Broadway.
So be warned, people in the first rows. Remember that smile of Mr. Corden’s? It’s often a signal that he’ll be looking your way. And as Dolly, the woman of his dreams, says with perfect accuracy: “I know exactly what he’s after. And if he carries on like this, he’s going to get it.”
There are two directors -- one just for physical comedy -- in "One Man, Two Guvnors," the farce that arrived from London's irreproachable National Theatre with virtuosic clowning by James Corden and another lesson for us Yanks about the two kinds of British humor.
There's the squeaky dry, silly-smart kind we know from Monty Python, Michael Frayn and Tom Stoppard. I love that kind. Then there is the slapstick, pants-dropping, music-hall, silly-dumb sort that traces its stock-character, low-comedy pedigree back to 16th century Italian commedia dell'arte, English pantomime and, clearly, Laurel (Brit) and Hardy (American).
In this, I'm afraid you're on your own. "One Man, Two Guvnors" obviously does what it does deliriously well. More than many trustworthy Londoners declared this among the funniest evenings they've ever had in the theater. On the other hand, there are few experiences lonelier than sitting with a poker face in a hall of laughter.
Corden, beloved back home on TV and stage, plays Francis, a hapless round fellow with twinkly porcine eyes, clashing brown plaids and the ability to somersault backward on a parlor chair while catching a nut in his mouth. Always hungry, he somehow finds himself with two bosses (guvnors), an educated one (the amusingly snooty Oliver Chris) who may have murdered a gangster and one who may be a gangster (Jemima Rooper). Based loosely on "The Servant of Two Masters," the 1746 commedia by Carlo Goldoni, the plot has been moved to seaside 1963 Brighton, where playwright Richard Bean drains the gold from Goldoni.
As Corden explains during one of his frequent asides to (and friendly assaults on) the audience, his character really serves as the classic greedy, cunning clown, Harlequin. Nicholas Hytner, the National leader who directed Corden here in the very different "History Boys," clearly has a fine old time in this throwback. Mark Thompson's lovely-dowdy cardboard sets change behind the curtain while a four-member band, dressed like early Beatles, plays rockabilly skiffle.
Apparent humor comes from a lawyer named Harry Dangle who talks veryveryvery fast. A pathetic old waiter (the amazingly bounceable Tom Edden) gets smashed by doors and falls down stairs. A vain young actor (the charming Daniel Rigby) preens. The stupid ingenue acts dumb, the bimbo bookkeeper is smart, the mention of Australia is supposed to be a joke and many, many crotches get grabbed. Consider yourself warned.