Theater Review: Carlo Goldoni’s Classic Comedy Goes Mod

The Broadway run of The National Theatre’s production of One Man, Two Guvnors, based on The Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldoni, has been nominated for seven Tony Awards. Here is Fuse critic Ian Thal’s review of the National Theatre Live broadcast of the British production, first posted in September 2011.

One Man, Two Guvnors by Richard Bean. Based on The Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldoni, with songs by Grant Olding. Directed by Nicholas Hynter. Presented by the National Theatre at the Adelphi Theatre in London, England and broadcast to cinemas worldwide as part of National Theatre Live. Screening at the Coolidge Corner Theater, Brookline, MA on September 29 and at other theaters throughout New England in September and October. Check here for theaters, dates, and screening times.

By Ian Thal.

James Corden (Francis Henshall) and Suzie Toase (Dolly) in ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS. Photo: Johan Persson

English comedy has never shied from its roots in the Italian commedia dell’arte: Shakespeare set most of his comedies in Italy, the Mister Punch who beats the devil, the hangman, and Judy was once a Neapolitan known as Pulcinella, while the popular English form of the Harlequinade is unmistakably a nineteenth-century permutation of commedia. England’s continued preoccupation with class and the long history of southern English cities receiving groups of migrant workers from other parts of Britain, each bringing with them their own distinct dialects and culture, nurture an appetite for commedia-inspired comedy of class and ethnic stereotypes. Consequently, it is natural for playwright Richard Bean to adapt the plot of Carlo Goldoni’s classic The Servant of Two Masters from seventeenth-century Venice to the 1963 Brighton, England of One Man, Two Guvnors.

Our one man is Francis Henshall (played by James Condon, best known to American audiences for The History Boys and guest appearances on Doctor Who), a recently out of work skiffle musician who finds himself employed as a minder for the London-based gangster and homosexual sadist Roscoe Crabbe, who in order to keep up appearances has come to Brighton for an arranged marriage to Pauline Clench (Claire Lams), as well as collect on a debt owed him by Claire’s father, Charlie (Fred Ridgeway.) Given the plot is lifted from Goldoni, things can never be quite so simple: having heard that Roscoe was stabbed to death in his nightclub by a rival gangster, Charlie has already given his blessing to the engagement between Claire and her boyfriend Alan (Daniel Rigby). Circumstances are further complicated when it becomes obvious to all but Lloyd Boateng (Trevor Laird), caterer, pub owner, hosteller, and old friend of the Crabbe family, that Roscoe is actually his twin-sister, Rachel, in disguise. Rachel is on the lam as she awaits her lover, and brother’s killer, Stanley Stubbers.

It is only in the second scene where our man, Francis, acquires his second guvnor. Hungry, penniless, and seemingly abandoned by his first guvnor while waiting outside of Lloyd’s pub, he takes the first job that will guarantee him a meal, and here he meets Stanley (Oliver Chris) seeking to rendezvous with Rachel and ship off to Australia before the law can catch up with him. As with the original, much of the ensuing comedy involves Francis attempting to collect both his wages by serving both guvnors, mistakenly delivering mail, money, and personal items to the wrong guvnor, inadvertently making each of the two gangster lovers aware of the other’s presence, and laying blame on an imaginary colleague anytime he fears exposure.

Goldoni’s popularity is based on fast-paced plots, not poetic dialogue, depth of characterization, nor philosophical content. While playwright Bean hews closely to the storyline of the original, he contributes snappy, non-sequitur-laden dialogue, and numerous 1963 pop-culture references. The sudden popularity of the Beatles is mentioned throughout, while the Crabbe twins are clearly a pastiche of real-life, twin, London gangsters and nightclub owners Ronald and Reggie Kray (the inspiration behind numerous fictitious, London crime lords, including Monty Python’s Piranha Brothers.) Composer and lyricist Grant Olding follows suit with songs that reflect the varied yet changing tastes in English pop, performing skiffle, Mersey beat, and mod rock with his own band, The Craze, while other cast members perform calypso and novelty tunes emblematic of styles heard on the British airwaves of the time.

Claire Lams (Pauline Clench), Jemima Rooper (Rachel Crabbe) and Suzie Toase (Dolly) sing up a storm. Photo: Johan Persson

In the role of Francis, Condon is an agile, physical comedian as well as a likable presence during his frequent fourth wall breaks. Francis’s love interest, Dolly (Suzie Toase, best known for the Harry Potter film franchise) is spunky and vivacious as Francis’s love interest and no slouch with pratfalls. She is an early “woman’s libber” who looks forward to a time 20 years into the future when a woman Prime Minister will introduce a more compassionate era devoid of wars (my companion for the evening reports that Margaret Thatcher jokes are currently the rage on the London stage). Tom Edden steals his scenes as Alfie, the elderly waiter with tremors at Lloyd’s pub; Daniel Rigby’s performance as Alan, presented as an actor trying out for existentialist “angry young man” roles, is appropriately melodramatic, moody, and mod. The remainder of the solid cast is made up veteran character actors recognizable from their television and film work.

The major fault of National Theatre Live’s broadcast presentation is not director Nicholas Hynter’s fine production but that the talent on the stage is frequently undercut by the ineptitude of the camera crew. While it is common in film and television to craft both fights and physical gags in the editing room, creating a montage of actions and reactions that was not actually executed on the set, theater is live: sequences are choreographed and rehearsed for the eyes of a live audience. Here the constant cutting from one camera to another, from wide shot to close-up to medium shot, destroys the logical and rhythmic flow of the comedy.

In the case of filmmakers who were also great physical comedians, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Jacques Tati, the camera frames the action from beginning to end: cutting to another camera never occurs unless it serves a comedic purpose. In contrast, the cuts made by the National Theatre’s camera crew presentation frequently show no discernible artistic strategy aside from wanting to change angles. This is most obvious during the more complex physical comedy and fight sequences choreographed by Cal McCrystal and “Combat” Kate Waters respectively, where the cutting from one camera to the next is simply butchery.

If the National Theatre is going to continue presenting these performances in simulcast, they need to ensure that the camera crew is acquainted with and sensitive to the blocking and choreography (and indeed, the theatrical style) being presented on the stage.

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