Director Spiro Veloudos keeps the clockwork running smoothly, not just ensuring that that the actors keep the rhythm, but making use of a skilled backstage crew who engineer (miraculously and on time) scenery and costume changes.
One Man, Two Guvnors by Richard Bean. Based on The Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldoni, with songs by Grant Olding. Directed by Spiro Veloudos. Presented by Lyric Stage Company of Boston, Boston, MA, through October 12, 2013
By Ian Thal
For New England audiences who could not manage a trip to London to see the original 2011 production of One Man, Two Guvnors at the National Theatre or visit New York for its 2012 Broadway revival, the Lyric Stage’s production is the first opportunity to see Richard Bean’s adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters sans the inept camera work that marred the National Theatre Live presentation — screened at selected cinemas throughout New England — in which nonsensical cutting butchered (to the point of unintelligibility) both the fight choreography and physical comedy.
Commedia dell’arte, though arguably one of the first pan-European art forms, is only vaguely understood in the United States. Theater history classes primarily mention the approach as an influence on Shakespeare and Molière, while most students are only aware of the repertoire through their exposure to The Servant of Two Masters, even though Goldoni, whose career came roughly two centuries after commedia’s birth in the mid-1500s, largely rejected the label.
Goldoni owed much to commedia traditions, relying heavily on its cast of stock characters, plot devices, and masks, but he rejected the actors’ craft of improvisation in favor of intricate, clockwork plots. These plots are so complex that the audience needs (and usually gets) a recap in the final scene. Directors generally take considerable license in cutting scenes or parts of scenes in Shakespeare’s plays, but one cannot easily excise material from a Goldoni play without breaking the machine.
Commedia finds a particular resonance in British theatre, given the strong awareness of class differences that permeate English society, as well as the hyper-regionalism of accents in a country where, up until recently, only one accent was culturally approved to be authoritative (as exemplified by recent debate as to whether the acclaimed character actor Peter Capaldi would be “allowed” to use his Scottish accent when he takes over the iconic lead role in the Doctor Who series). Moreover, the migrations of working class people from Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Northern England into London and environs looking for employment neatly mirrors the wave after wave of rural zanni and their descendants seeking the same opportunities in the capitals of the trade empires of Venice, Florence, Genoa, and Milan.
Playwright Bean’s script is faithful to Goldoni’s predilection for clockwork plots. It opens in the coastal city of Brighton, England in 1963, at the engagement party of the ditzy ingenue Pauline Clench (Tiffany Chen) and her true love, Alan Dangle (Alejandro Simoes) a would-be actor angling to play the angry young man roles currently in vogue. Hosting the soirée are their fathers, former gangster turned legitimate businessman Charlie “The Duck” Clench (Dale Place), and his attorney Harry Dangle (Larry Coen), who often brags of “getting the Mau Mau off” in reference to the 8 year anti-colonial uprising against British rule in Nairobi. Also in attendance is Lloyd Boateng (Davron S. Monroe), Charlie’s fellow ex-con and friend from Brixton Prison who has become a legit tavern owner and caterer, and Dolly (Aimee Doherty) Charlie’s bookkeeper.
Into this scene, bursts Francis Henshall (Neil A. Casey) a starving skiffle musician who has been recently hired to be a minder for London mobster Roscoe Crabbe. Roscoe, an old associate of both Charlie and Lloyd, is also Pauline’s reportedly murdered ex-fiancé, the latter knifed in his own night-club by Stanley Stubbers (Dan Whelton), a posh, upper-class gangster who is also the lover of Roscoe’s twin sister Rachel (McCaela Donovan). When Roscoe enters, it becomes clear that it’s actually Rachel in disguise, looking to claim a promised dowery to fund her escape with Stanley to Australia.
The marriage between Pauline and Roscoe was designed as a sham. The Crabbe twins are based on real-life twin London gangsters and night club owners Reginald and Ronald Kray, whose violent ways reverberated in English popular culture, not only in pop songs but countless fictitious analogues, including Monty Python’s Piranha Brothers. Roscoe is, somewhat like Ronald Kray, homosexual (in his memoirs, Ronald insisted that he was bisexual); he only needs a wife for public functions, and intends to permit her to engage in discrete romances. This arrangement is not only unacceptable to Pauline and Alan, but to Harry as well.
Harry pledges to take vengeance using his knowledge of the law, while Alan, an aspiring actor, vows to take revenge with whipped-up histrionic fervor. In the meantime, Lloyd recognizes Rachel’s ruse as Roscoe, but due to his affection for the Crabbes (he describes his feelings towards Rachel as paternal) pledges to keep her secret while Francis and Dolly have caught one another’s eyes.
In the next scene, Francis, who is is standing outside of Lloyd’s establishment where Rachel is staying (The Cricketer’s Arms), acquires his second guvnor: Stanley. Francis hasn’t eaten and he hasn’t been paid, so the extra income at least guarantees him a full belly. His trick is to run errands, iron shirts, serve food, and keep Stanley and Rachel from knowing that he’s collecting two salaries, even if he has to invent a fictitious Irish colleague named Paddy as an ever-convienent scapegoat. The first act culminates in Francis successfully sating his appetite during an extended dinner sequence involving slammed doors, pratfalls, deceit, and much scurrying and screaming.
The second act, as the genre demands, revolves around the resolution of the three love stories — a point made in a meta-theatrical monologue that Francis delivers to the audience after he has eaten. Indeed, Bean’s theater jokes are quite smart: rather than go for the more obvious Hamlet jokes, his characters actually note the length of the uncut script!
Despite his fidelity to Goldoni’s plot, Bean cleverly alters the characters to fit the milieu. Francis, Pauline, Harry, Lloyd are analogues to the original’s Truffaldino, Clarice, Dottore Lombardi, and Brighella, but Charlie and Dolly are considerably different from Pantalone and Smeraldina. Outside of the references to London crime lore, American audiences are likely to get most of Bean’s pop-culture references: there are few references more obscure than The Beatles, the early reception of “Women’s libbers” and an ironic prophecy of the coming of Margaret Thatcher. Even the brief usage of Cockney rhyming slang is obvious enough to need no explanation.
Bean, like Goldoni, knows who is commissioning new works, and who purchases tickets, and so even if Francis and Dolly are smarter than their employers, the social order of masters and servants, whichever side of the law they might operate, is never called into question. This is still a very different take than the Marxist inspired commedia of Dario Fo, or the anarchism of the Marx Brothers.
Veloudos keeps the clockwork running smoothly, not just ensuring that that the actors keep the rhythm, but making use of a skilled backstage crew who engineer (miraculously and on time) scenery and costume changes, and insuring that the ad libs don’t disrupt the flow. Those familiar with reviews of the National Theatre’s production will note that the ad libs are far less extensive than one might might have thought; they mostly constitute some moments of audience participation and a few off-the-cuff local references. (The improvisational riffs at the Lyric are far fewer than those proffered in Yale Repertory Theatre’s production of The Servant of Two Masters, which visited ArtsEmerson earlier this year.)
Neil A. Casey, despite being visibly older than James Cordon, who originated the role, invests Francis with enough manic energy to make you overlook the fact that he’s supposed to be playing a character who is young enough to be, in 1963, a contemporary of The Beatles. Casey’s toothy grin and pop-eyes remind one more of the aforementioned antics of Dario Fo than of Cordon’s pudgy, non-threatening cuteness. Without Cordon’s full head of hair he has to rely on his strength as a clown. In this, he is adept: when Casey’s Francis is of two minds about his duties, a classic lazzo for many an Arlecchino-inspired character, the actor supplies some wonderfully fresh business, climaxing in a self-inflicted tickle fight.
John Davin also demonstrates strong clown chops as Alfie, the 87 year-old, mostly deaf waiter with a variable speed pacemaker at Lloyd’s establishment.
McCaela Donovan and Dan Whelton, while genuinely funny as the the gangster inamorati Rachel and Stanley, tend to play too close to the Italian archetypes. They are unable to invest their roles with the over-the-top amorality and sado-masochistic sexuality of the characters as written. The Beatrice and Federigo of Goldoni’s original may come from an era where duels were seen as vaguely romantic gestures, but in the ’60s of Bean’s play Rachel and Stanley are not nice people — they, like the Krays, are the sort of gangsters who strike fear amongst gangsters.
Dale Place is well cast as Charlie “The Duck” Clench, a former criminal who, despite having become a legitimate businessman, can still intimidate when he needs to. Davron S. Monroe is too young for a part that demands him to show paternal feelings towards Rachel, but he is a charismatic presence, in particular when he takes lead vocals during the musical interludes.
The songs, written by Grant Olding, generally have only a vague connection to the story. The tunes are firmly rooted in skiffle (with a few nods to R&B, English music hall, calypso, and mod-rock), a musical style popular in ’50s Britain: it was played on cheap and homemade instruments and inspired by American folk, country, and blues. It was performed by young musicians who would later populate the British rock scene once they could afford better instruments. The house band, The Craze, (in One Man, Two Guvnors the band is always called “The Craze”) led by keyboardist Catherine Stornetta, often give the songs with a rockabilly feel. “IOU” and “Brighton Line” were particular standouts.
On the visual end, designer Tyler Kinney generally excels, using a wide palette of colors and textures in his costumes, which represent the fashions of early ’60s Britain in ways that are not derivative of the National Theatre’s production (Lloyd’s dandyish outfit is a particularly impressive accomplishment.) The notable exceptions being the wig that Alejandro Simoes wears as Alan, and Rachel’s jacket and cap ensemble hems too closely to the outfits that modish young women wore at the time when they wanted to project independence while her trousers hug her hips and bottom too tightly to make for male drag.
While lacking much of the stylistic weirdness that characterized the more traditional approach to commedia dell’arte that Boston audiences saw in Yale Rep’s staging of The Servant of Two Masters, anglophilic fans of farce will be entertained by this Lyric Stage production of One Man, Two Guvnors, whether or not they are familiar with its Italian roots.
Ian Thal is a performance artist and theatre educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere. He is also an aspiring playwright working on his second full length play; his first, though as-of-yet unproduced, was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. He blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled From The Journals of Ian Thal. Ian is a member of the Small Theatre Alliance of Boston.