Tuesday, November 28

One Man, Two Guvnors – Octagon Theatre

After a critically acclaimed National Theatre premiere, a UK tour, an award-winning West End transfer and a Broadway run which kickstarted James Corden’s stratospheric stateside success, there can’t have been many people left who hadn’t seen the original production of One Man, Two Guvnors.

And then the pandemic struck. Another 200,000 tuned in to the NT Live performance. One of the theatrical highlights of lockdown.

It’s a brave programmer then who opts to revive Richard Bean’s adaptation of Goldoni’s commedia dell’arte classic The Servant of Two Masters. It’s a gamble that’s largely paid off.

For anyone unaware, 1700s Venice has been replaced by 1963 Brighton. That aside, Bean’s adaptation is surprisingly faithful. Both to the plot and themes of upper-class stupidity, gender equality and sex positivity.

An engagement party for delightfully dense Pauline (Lauren Sturgess) and wannabe actor Alan (Qasim Mahmood) is rudely interrupted by Francis Henshall (Jordan Pearson) who claims to be the muscle for gangster Roscoe Crabbe. Quite a shock given Roscoe was stabbed to death a couple of days earlier.

Roscoe, however, is twin sister Rachel (Siobhan Athwal) disguised as her brother to hide from the authorities. Why? Because her lover, posh nitwit Stanley Stubbers (Laurie Jamieson), held the knife that killed Roscoe of course. Desperate to eat, Francis ends up also working for Stubbers. He must now strive to keep his two bosses apart.

Confused? No matter because the stock characters are so clearly drawn and the action so frenetic, you’re happily drawn into the precision-engineered ridiculousness.

Photo: Pamela Raith

Pearson has the most difficult job. His harlequin-inspired Henshall (complete with on-character diamond jumper) rarely leaves the stage. He has to deliver quick verbal wit and on-point slapstick. There’s a fine line between loveable and annoying which he treads well.

It’s nearly impossible to separate this leading part from its most famous player though. There are moments, in delivery and facial expression, where Pearson’s performance feels like a Corden impression. Perhaps that’s no bad thing.

If Act One belongs to Henshall then Act Two belongs to Polly Lister’s hilarious Dolly, the down-to-earth scouse servant who sees all. Not content with saving the day and fixing the scenery, Lister also delivers a feminist and working class call to arms.

The show is very nearly stolen by Javier Marzan as Alfie. Anyone familiar with outstanding comedy troupe Peepolykus will not be surprised to see Marzan deliver a physical comedy masterclass. 

Special mention for Jamieson’s grandstanding Stubbers. Although, anyone less than enamoured with the prevalence of privately educated schoolboys in public life may be slightly triggered.

Where Bean’s re-versioning departs from its commedia dell arte roots is in the non-improvised construction. Even the audience on-stage shenanigans are tightly scripted. The play is fabulously wordy and full of laugh out loud lines. Mahmood sadly gets a bit lost in the verbosity and his performance as Alan is a bit too one note.

An on-stage skiffle band, made up of talented company members, gleefully perform Grant Olding’s fantastic original songs throughout to help cover the scene changes.

Colin Falconer’s inventive set doesn’t need much changing though. Revolving panels neatly transform a 60s front room into a whole host of other locations. A balcony housing the band and pub dining rooms doubles up as a pier bedecked with seaside lights and beautiful pastel-coloured beach huts.

The balcony also becomes the pub landing where the famous Act 1 dining set piece takes place. This is a highlight but the distance between the seats and action means it occasionally feels isolated from the audience.

It may have been a risk for director Lotte Wakeham but the quality of the material shines through. This is a solidly directed production of an outstanding comedy. A top night out.

Playing until 25th June, https://octagonbolton.co.uk/whats-on/theatre/one-man-two-guvnors-1/

Reviewer: Peter Ruddick

Reviewed: 31st May 2022

North West End UK Rating: ★★★★