Dazed and confused

By Stephen Jewell

Festival highlight One Man, Two Guvnors mixes farce, skiffle and bawdy humour with audience interaction. Stephen Jewell reports

Owain Arthur and Ben Mansfield in One Man, Two Guvnors. Photo / Johan Persson
Owain Arthur and Ben Mansfield in One Man, Two Guvnors. Photo / Johan Persson

Following in the footsteps of a comedy giant like James Corden would be a daunting prospect for any performer. Starting out as the star's understudy when One Man, Two Guvnors first opened at the Lyttelton, on London's South Bank in 2011, Owain Arthur was elevated to the lead role when the English National Theatre's latest hit production transferred to the Theatre Royal Haymarket last year.

However, he brings so much infectious enthusiasm to the part that it is easy to conclude he was born to play hapless glutton Francis Henshall, who bites off more than he can chew after ill-advisedly committing himself to two demanding bosses.

"It was a lot of pressure and looking back now I can't believe I did it," he admits. "They are big shoes to fill, but you have to stay true to the play and respect the writing. The play itself is strong enough to carry it through and when I took over it was with a completely different cast. We'd been rehearsing for weeks beforehand so we had our own rhythm and we'd already forgotten what it was like doing it with the other guys."

Born and raised in North Wales, Arthur can identify with his fellow countryman Francis, who finds himself a fish out of water on the English south coast. "There's no denying I'm Welsh," he says.

"It's the way I speak on stage and I'm not shying away from the fact that I have a strong Welsh accent. But there's something quite musical about it."

Conceived as a vehicle for Corden's bombastic talents by National Theatre director Nicholas Hytner, the play has been adapted by Richard Bean from Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni's 1743 comedy The Servant and Two Masters. A staple of the Commedia Dell'arte tradition, the story is relocated to Brighton in 1963, just before the advent of rock'n'roll.

"It's just after the Beatles are starting to take off so skiffle is still the main working-class music," says Bean. "People think of the 60s as being the Swinging 60s all the way through, but 1961 and 1962 were basically the 50s, as nothing had really happened yet."

Designed by Hytner to "appeal to both Sun and Guardian readers", One Man, Two Guvnors enjoyed a sell-out season on Broadway last year and has scooped numerous awards including Best Play at the 2011 Evening Standard Theatre Awards and a Best Actor gong for Corden at last year's Tonys in New York.

"Our brief was to write something that was very populist and accessible to people who don't normally like theatre," says Bean.

"There are a lot of people who think of theatre as being three and a half hours of Chekhov, who can be a bit boring if you don't know the rules of the game."

More a variety show than a straightforward drama, the experience of One Man, Two Guvnors begins before the curtain even rises - theatregoers are serenaded by skiffle band The Craze as they take their seats.

"The show is meant to be 100 per cent entertainment so you end up with a play where the scene changes are more entertaining than the play," says Bean.

"Normally that would be a criticism of the play but it isn't in this case. I didn't write any of it but the scene changes are fantastic, as you either get a great song or some stupid old-fashioned English musical hall act, like the guy who does spoon percussion."

Most controversially, the show also breaks through the so-called fourth wall when Francis frequently addresses and engages with the audience.

"Anybody seeing it doesn't need to know that this is a Dell'arte classic, but when the Commedia performed it in the markets of Italy, Spain and southern Europe, it would have involved an enormous amount of improvisation," explains Bean.

"They'd rock up to the market, send the horse out to grass and they'd open up the back of the cart and start playing. If someone heckled them, they'd take them on and deal with them.

"Once it moved into the theatres there was even more improvisation. We wanted to keep the spirit of that and we play with that form."

Arthur also welcomes the opportunity to interact with those before him. "It's such a big part of the play because the audience gets to follow Francis' story," he adds.

"It also means that every show is slightly different because of that, which makes it dead exciting for both us and the audience because you never know what to expect."

With its nods to Alan Ackbouryn's archetypically English farces such as Noises Off, Arthur also believes the play will strike a chord with Kiwis when it travels Downunder for the Auckland Arts Festival in March.

"It's basically the international language of laughter if you like," he says. "I don't want to shoot myself in the foot but I'm quietly confident it will appeal to New Zealand's taste as well. It's a comedy, which is something that you could find all over the world long before any of us were born.

"There's also a lot of physical comedy, which is great for me. And it's something you can understand no matter what language you speak."


Auckland Arts Festival

What: One Man, Two Guvnors
Where and when: Aotea Centre, March 14-23

- NZ Herald

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