Review: National Theatre at Home:One Man, Two Guvnors

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

One of the many restrictions that fell into place as a result of the Covid-19 lockdown was the closure of theatres. The National Theatre, however, became one of the first of a growing number of theatres attempting to allow the show to go on, by publishing recordings of their most popular shows online for free. As part of weekly digital showings, last Thursday 2 April, Richard Bean’s acclaimed One Man, Two Guvnors kicked off proceedings to the delight of theatre fanatics worldwide.

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Photo Credit: Johan Persson

As one of the characters Dolly tells us, ‘You spend your whole life waiting for one man, then two come along at once.’ The two men who come along are actually just one man, Francis Henshall, played by James Corden and his Irish, more courageous version of himself, Paddy. A theme emerges here – two men, two guvnors – all adding to the hilarity of the evening.

Under Nicholas Hytner’s direction, the play proved a joyous and thoroughly entertaining evening at the ‘theatre’. And whilst for some, the two hours and thirty minute running time might creep into being too long, for most, this play will bring nothing but laughter throughout. The plot is far from complex: Francis Henshall juggles working for two men whilst navigating the colourful characters and sub plots that surround their world. But the effectiveness of the play comes not from what happens, but instead, from how it happens.

James Corden as Francis Henshall is undoubtedly the key powerhouse of the play. Cordon should be commended for the way in which he both drives the storyline and is by far the most compelling on-stage presence, yet at the same time still the endearingly funny ‘boy done good’ east-end geezer the audience can’t help but root for. Cordon’s character is assured in his fourth-wall-breaking, chaos-causing role within the play, so much so that Corden at times can feel like an in-character narrator – definite ques to Corden’s on-screen talk show host roles.

One would be incorrect to assume that the success of One Man Two Guvnors solely rests on James Corden’s shoulders. Thanks to a sterling cast that all bring highly complementary renditions of characters to the stage, one would be hard pushed to decide on any actor that could be said to play a ‘supporting’ role. Tom Edden who plays Alfie, for example, mutters all of ten words throughout the play yet brings all the comedic value of a fully scripted character, using physical acting techniques to embody a frail old waiter on his first day at work. Or, Oliver Chris whose self-mockery at the upper class acts as refreshing political commentary within the play.

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Photo Credit: Johan Presson

It is useful to remember perhaps, that this is Bean’s adaptation of Goldoni’s commedia dell’arte play, The Servant of Two Masters (1746). The commedia dell’arte archetypal characters run the risk of being interpreted as stereotypes by a contemporary audience. James Corden’s Francis Henshall, for example, is the Harlequin. He is driven by single motives. In the first act his motive is food, and once he has succeeded here, he engages with the audience to discuss what his new motive will be, and, on cue, in walks Dolly. At times, female characters appear a little shallow, yet women such as Dolly were part of the new wave of 1960s feminism and stand out to the audience as wholly contemporary.

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Photo Credit: Johan Presson

The real question is whether Bean’s adaption of One Man, Two Guvnors is worth your viewing time during the lockdown. Thankfully, I am able to offer some certainty in this uncertain period: yes. Whether it be the continuously entertaining comedy (there’s a character for everyone), the humorous while fairly predictable storyline, or the nostalgic nod to 1960s Britain, a watch of One Man is a must-see as part of the lockdown TV rundown.

Izzy Colman

You can watch One Man Two Guvnors here until Thursday. 

Featured Image Credit: Johan Persson

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