The Auckland Arts Festival's centrepiece One Man, Two Guvnors demonstrates what happens when the sophisticated elegance of commedia dell'arte collides with the eccentric weirdness of classic British comedy. The modernisation of an 18th century commedia classic plunges us into the seedier side of swinging Brighton with farcical action, witty wordplay and superb comic acting kicked along with the manic energy of a skiffle band.
The show's many virtues are all jammed into a set-piece that has a malnourished Harlequin filching food from a banquet served to two masters who must be kept apart in adjoining dinning rooms.
The theme of hunger amid plenty would have resonated with an 18th century audience in ways we can barely imagine but Richard Bean's script cleverly uses the set-up for an extended riff on the contemporary fear of public humiliation.
The sequence also allows for some serious slapstick with Mark Jackson as the geriatric fall-guy buffeted into alarmingly contorted postures that recall the precariously balanced high-step of traditional commedia.
Owain Arthur brings an infectious enthusiasm to the Harlequin minder figure, Francis Henshall, and quickly wins over the audience by throwing himself into a violent dispute with a schizophrenic inner-voice that sounds like Gollum on benzedrine.
Arthur may also be feeling conflicted about the Auckland audience after a bizarre exchange as he launches into a rant about the torments of hunger and theatrically asks: "Has anyone got a sandwich ?"
The show has played to packed houses around the world but I suspect that only in New Zealand would the rhetorical question be answered by the well-intentioned offer of a real plastic-wrapped sandwich.
The typically Kiwi gesture of sharing your sammies was perfectly in tune with the play's ironic toying with story-telling conventions and the actors took up the challenge with an improvised display of unbridled hostility towards the benefactor who had stolen their limelight.
What: One Man, Two Guvnors
Where: Aotea Centre, to March 23
Reviewer: Paul Simei-Barton