One Man, Two Guv’nors is a hilarious British farce about love, passion and being very very hungry that has taken the West End by storm. The production, directed by Nicholas Hytner, is a brilliant piece of comedy, toying expertly with the audience and making them laugh and gasp with horror at the same time.
The script is based off the defining Commedia dell’Arte play A Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldoni, and it does not take a particular education in theatre history to grasp the connections; lead character Francis Henshall (Rufus Hound) refers to himself as the Harlequin and asks the audience what his motivation is in a monologue opening the second act. Yet for all its formulaic Commedia structure, the piece flows organically, moving at rapid slapstick speed or drawing out agonising moments of embarrassing the audience members who somehow found their way onstage during the show.
The setting of the play is Brighton 1963, and I will fully admit that without a deep familiarity with that era of British history, I didn’t get all of the jokes (or why they all seemed to hate Australia so much). Yet the themes developed in the play are universal: lovers torn apart by fate, distrust of police authority, cross-dressing and sex. This play is about base passions and stretching every moment to its comedic limits, and the expert ensemble of actors, led by the powerful, engaging presence of Hound, did just that.
I hesitate to give details of the plot as I don’t want to give any jokes away, so it will suffice to say that this story follows the impersonation of a dead man by his twin sister, the breaking off of one engagement for another and throughout it all, a simple man who somehow ends up serving two masters (or governors) at the same time and must keep the two from discovering one another. It is a high stakes game involving both quick wordplay and extremely physical acting, and I couldn’t keep myself from laughing. And from someone who normally hates comedy, that’s saying something.