One Man, Two Guvnors by Richard Bean (after Carlo Goldoni) – National Theatre at Home
After the theatres closed, the National Theatre was quick to announce a free mini-season of online shows from their NT Live broadcasts, which immediately became the only evening bookings in thousands of newly empty diaries. The first Youtube show – Nicholas Hytner’s mid-2000s mega-hit, One Man, Two Guvnors – had a real sense of anticipation. It was the perfect choice for a national morale boost being, as Hytner noted, meant for nothing except to make the audience laugh and, although the only reason for showing it was separation, it proved a much-needed shared experience.
The NT at Home broadcasts are strange. They replace the live experience of watching a play with a ghostly vision from the past. We watch people experiencing something, sitting within touching distance in their thousands, on a night 6 years ago and we try to join in. Re-living the past so intensely is eerie, and it’s hard to forget that we are using it to block out the present. Later – if there is a later – perhaps there will new performances created for the medium of shared sofa viewing. But, for now, we have the comforts of Goldoni’s 18th century farce reinterpreted as English panto nostalgia, in the impossibly distant past of 2014.
Richard Bean’s version is famously set in a 1960 Brighton, among lawyers, gangsters, crossed lovers and the beginnings of a changing society. There are plenty of rough exteriors, but everyone has a heart of gold. One Man becomes something more almost entirely through the remarkable energy of the performers, who all work very hard to be as silly as possible without derailing the show. Led by James Corden (Lyn Gardner, whose live-tweet were an unexpected bonus of quarantine theatre, quoted Susannah Clapp description of him as ‘the Essex Nureyev’), the cast is on fire. Corden bounces, beachball-like, around the stage and hits his peak in the first half during the riotous scene where he tried to serve dinner to both his masters at the same time, without either knowing, while eating most of it himself. He works beautifully with Oliver Chris, as posh boy master Stanley, who is triumphantly ridiculous, and Jemima Rooper as master no. 2 Rachel, dressed as her own dead brother and oozing Brighton Rock menace. And then there’s Tom Edden’s legendary performance as Alfie, the ancient deaf waiter with palsy, on his first day in the job. His rattling progress across the stage carrying the plates and his pratfalls off the staircase are as funny now as they were then.
The cast pull each other up to the same level of excellence, so it’s not all about Corden. The show has mostly aged well, but in Bean’s adaptation women have neither equal stage space nor the best parts. Now, they probably would. The nostalgia also depends on fading memories of a pre-60s world, which are losing their direct currency. It’s funny to think that the problems of Goldoni’s original, which makes little sense to 21st century audiences, will visit Bean’s version too. But just now there’s every excuse to enjoy ourselves and not worry about the future, which will come soon enough.