Richard Bean, prolific British playwright, has landed with a bang with this, his first export to American shores. A great success for two seasons at the National Theatre in London, a transfer to the West End, where it is now booked through the summer with a second cast, which means we get the first cast here at the Music Box, where I imagine it will remain until one or all die of exhaustion from the goings on in their wild and very funny farce.
James Corden, who made a vast impression on us as one of The History Boys, has grown rounder and taller since he left us in 2007. Corden has the very amiable and accessible personality of Stan Laurel and other gentle mimes from the silent days of film, but he combines it with the blunderheaded elephantine grace of Oliver Hardy and Fatty Arbuckle to come up with a persona that is all his own, and just as delicious as any of his formidable antecedents.
For a young actor, he has remarkable total control over everything, including the audience. Twice during the long evening he deals at some length with someone from out front, and the audience’s laughter for the subsequent ten minutes can be heard up and down45th Street. Now I know what “to fall about with laughter” really means. At one point, his perpetually hungry character, “Francis Henshall” asks if anyone in the audience has a sandwich, and as luck would have it, on the night I attended one gent in the fifth row actually offered one. Clearly that does not happen, may never have happened before, and Corden milked it for another five minute improv that had us all bellowing with laughter once again.
Oh yes, there is a play going on up there onstage, and to keep it simple for you, I’ll merely say that Francis, recently fired from his skittle band, takes on two jobs as assistant to one Roscoe Crabbe, a small time East End hood who is now in Brighton to collect 6,000 pounds from his fiance’s dad. But Roscoe has been murdered by Stanley Subbers and it is Subbers who hires Francis to assist him as well, so it becomes Francis’ job to keep the two of them apart so that neither will know that he’s working for both of them. He serves them both luncheon, and manages to consume most of the menu himself, as he’s always hungry. That’s really all you need know, except the plot requires the services of eight or ten other incredibly vivid characters, a floozy, an ancient waiter, a lawyer (played on my night by understudy Stephen Pilkington with tremendous authority), and other useful creatures.
Between scenes, a jaunty group of 4 musicians calling themselves “The Craze” keep up the mirth and madness with songs by Grant Olding with the sound of early Beatles material, early ’60s rock ‘n roll, which is fine as playwright Richard Bean has moved Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters from Venice in the 1740s to Brighton in 1963. The first act gets rolling early on, once the many characters are introduced, and moves nonstop to its curtain over an hour later. The second act loses a little steam, but not enough to make us wish for more.
Mr. Corden and his zany supporting cast are most welcome guests in our house — and they may stay as long as they wish. They offer us one very funny evening in the theatre.
One Man, Two Guvnors is playing at the Music Box Theatre, 239 West 45th Street (Between Broadway and 8th Avenue), NYC.
Details and tickets
Richard Seff, who numbers among his many accomplishments, careers as Broadway performer, agent, writer, and librettist, has written the book for Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical!, which debuted at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is also author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com. Read more at RichardSeff.com
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