By Richard Bean
Directed by Ross Gumbley
Musical Direction by Luke Di Somma
The Court Theatre, Christchurch | November 22-January 17
If the measure of a good comedy is the amount of laughs it gets, then One Man, Two Guvnors is an unqualified success. But to leave it at that would be a disservice to director Ross Gumbley, musical director Luke Di Somma, and the talented cast and crew involved in the Court Theatre’s rambunctious production.
Based on Carlo Goldoni’s 18th century Italian comedy (commedia dell’arte) The Servant of Two Masters, the basic plot follows a scatterbrained servant who finds himself employed by two different masters who are unaware of each other’s existence. But wait, there’s more. One master is a woman disguised as her dead brother; the other master is the woman’s lover who murdered her brother. And all this has been cleverly updated by Richard Bean to fit into 1960s Britain.
Like any good comedy of errors, One Man, Two Guvnors indulges in the most delicious dramatic irony with characters always a step behind each other. It’s a joyful, exuberant script that delightfully pushes the limits of comedy. Think every standard joke in the stable on speed. And while not all of the jokes land perfectly, when they do it takes what could be mere chuckles and gives you an aching belly full of laughter instead. The first half establishes the necessary plot points, presenting exposition in a charming enough manner, but it’s not until the end of the first half that the real pleasure comes during the dinner scene—undoubtedly the centerpiece of the play. It’s easily one of the most relentlessly hilarious things I’ve seen on stage all year, a tour de force in physical comedy, piling pratfall on top of pratfall. The less said about it the better. Just know that the show is worth seeing for this sequence alone.
The titular man of the play, Francis Henshall, played by Tom Trevella, is a wonderful dope. A little crass but affable, a little bit desperate but pitiable. We laugh at him and we laugh with him, he welcomes it all. Though it may be an ensemble comedy, there is no doubt that Francis is the biggest role. It’s a demanding part that Trevella handles with ease, never missing a beat and always committed to the nonsensical actions asked of him.
The two guvnors, Rachel Crabbe and Stanley Stubbers, played by Kathleen Burns and Jonathan Martin with infectious enthusiasm, are also a constant source of amusement, constantly pushing and pulling Francis in opposing directions. The rest of the cast, despite having smaller parts, still feel larger than life. In a play where every performance is highly-affected, each affectation is an utter delight. Particular standouts include Juliet Reynolds-Midgley as Dolly, a vivacious modern woman; Damian Avery as Alan Dangle, an obnoxious wannabe actor; Georgia-Kate Heard, a ditzy blonde in love; and David Ladderman as Alfie, who threatens to steal the spotlight as an adorable geriatric waiter.
The production team work to create a world that is familiarly British and cartoonish. Julian Southgate’s wonderfully constructed set, made of cut-out backdrops, is highly reminiscent of a pop-up book. The costume design by Stephen Robertson is period appropriate but ever colourful. And lighting design by Giles Tanner and sound design by Stephen Compton exist in perfect service to the comic reality of the play. Anything naturalistic would be incongruous with Gumbley’s vision.
Chris Wethey (bass), Benjamin Eldridge (lead guitar), Cameron Douglas (vocals/guitar), and Tim Sellars (drums/washboard) make up the band performing live-music before, during and after the show. Their music is also effectively utilised to assist with the transitions between scenes, accompanying a cast member performing unique renditions of modern pop songs. It’s an effective distraction from the extended set changes.
Being billed as “The Funniest Show on the Planet” doesn’t work in favour of One Man, Two Guvnors. No show can live up to such lofty expectations. But, even if it never quite reach those heights, nobody should be discouraged from seeing it. A sharply-written comedy that aspires to nothing less than greatness is nothing to scoff at.