The Book of Matthew holds that “no man can serve two masters,” to which Richard Bean’s sparkling new comedy One Man, Two Guvnors submits the addendum, “but watching him try can be funny as ‘ell.”
Based on Carlo Goldoni’s 1746 commedia dell’Arte-influenced classic The Servant of Two Masters, Bean’s latter-day homage is set in 1963 Brighton. Finding himself at liberty and broke, Frances Hensall (a cherub-faced James Corden), more in an effort to fill his stomach than his coffers, gets himself hired by two gentlemen (of sorts), neither of whom is aware of the other’s existence.
The first employer is Ralph Crabbe (Jemima Rooper), who surprises everyone by arriving at his own engagement party after he was believed dead. The second is Stanley Stubbers (Oliver Chris), an arrogant young scion of the English upper classes who appears to be on the lam – from something. Ralph’s trying to collect some cash from Charlie “the Duck” Church (Fred Ridgeway), whose daughter, Ralph’s fiancée Pauline (Claire Lams), is desperate to marry Alan, a would-be actor (Daniel Rigby), while Stanley is trying to raise enough dough to escape to Australia (though he’s dubious about the opera). Befuddled by his search for food, Frances can’t keep straight which employer wants what, especially after he falls for proto-feminist sexpot Dolly (Suzie Toase). Interspersed with the music-hall mayhem, early Beatles-style ditties are played by the engaging, energetic combo The Craze.
That’s just the setup, of course. After that, things really get complicated (and comical). Suffice it to say there’s true love, false identities, cross-dressing, murder and quite bit of audience participation. (Those of you in the front rows, you have been warned!) One scene in particular, in which Frances has to wait tables for both his masters at once, aided only by an octogenarian waiter (Tom Edden) with an adjustable pacemaker, is a prolonged piece of hysteria the like of which has not been seen on stage before this season.
Holding it all together is the brilliant Corden (last seen on Broadway in History Boys), whose command of slapstick is rivaled only by his improvisational talents. Gleefully tearing down the fourth wall, he’s as much in his element making fun of the audience as he is stumbling through the star-crossed lovers (and you’d be surprised at exactly who they are) on stage. He’s aided and abetted by excellent turns from Rigby, whose pretentious thespian is peculiarly athletic; Toase, whose prognostication of Margaret Thatcher is brilliant, if a little optimistic; and Chris, who’s reminiscent of a more disturbing Bertie Wooster.
Director Nicholas Hytner keeps the action rattling along at such a breakneck speed, the play seems bound to careen out of control and crash – but never quite does. Broadway’s funniest comedy since The Book of Mormon, One Man, Two Guvnors is nothing short of a tour de farce.