‘One Man, Two Guvnors’updates Italian Renaissance comedy
By Adam Tatelman, Senior Columnist
I’ve always had a fondness for the energy and enthusiasm found in live theatre. Watching actors maintain an imaginary world without the advantage of editing or CGI can be truly inspiring to behold—especially when the world of the play in question is as full of lively lunacy and bizarre comedic digressions as Arts Club’s latest effort, One Man, Two Guvnors.
The playis based in the conventions of Italian Renaissance Commedia Dell’arte, a form of street theatre that cast stock characters as either masters or servants. The servants are always motivated by base needs like food or lust, and the masters are foppish and pretentious. For One Man, Two Guvnors, these characters are adapted for modern stage performance.
Arlecchino the clown is reborn as Francis Henshall (Andrew McNee), a bumbling manservant who honestly can’t choose between his love of food and love of women. His employers and their families are based off of stock masters such as Dottore the scholar or Pantalone the old miser, providing verbal comedy as a counterpoint to Francis’ slapstick.
The plot, adapted by Richard Bean from the Venetian comedy A Servant of Two Masters, is a bewilderingly contrived parade of coincidence and stunningly bad lies, taking place squarely in the realm of screwball farce. Think Fawlty Towers or Blackadder and you know the score.
I can’t give much away outside the setup: seeking to satisfy his hunger, Francis comes into the employment of Roscoe Crabbe (Celine Stubel), a gangster who was presumed dead after a run-in with his rival and Francis’ other boss, Stanley Stubbers (Martin Happer). Francis has to keep them from meeting in order to keep his job. But it turns out Roscoe is actually dead, and it’s his twin sister Rachel, Stanley’s lover, who is impersonating the gangster for reasons of her own.
Rachel, as Roscoe, is set to marry Pauline Clench (Lauren Bowler), a brainless beauty who’s fallen for wannabe actor Alan Dangle (Ryan Beil). What follows is a chaotic danse macabre between the high melodrama of the masters and Francis’ simple desires as he constantly disrupts everyone’s plans with his legendary ineptitude, inventing identities on the fly and blaming the gloriously mad results on imaginary Irish dockworkers.
Commedia Dell’arte used Lazzi, short rehearsed gags that could be thrown in on a whim. This structure informs the style of humour in One Man, Two Guvnors. Just as Italian audiences could never predict which Lazzi would progress the plot, we can only wait and see what acrobatic hijinks Francis will perform, what misunderstanding will drive a wedge between which characters, or who will be summoned from the audience. This keeps the play moving at such a supersonic pace that even when a gag falls flat, you’re already laughing at the next one.
Drenched in ’60s English iconography and set against the backdrop of downtown Brighton, the play revels in anachronistic cellphone gags and satiric jabs at other Arts Club productions. A Beatles copycat band, The Craze, entertain the audience during intermission with mawkish beats like “The Brighton Line.” It all blends together into such an infectious cocktail of gut-busting laughter that you’ll probably want to bring an oxygen tank.
So if you’re a fan of British comedy, pick up some tickets to One Man, Two Guvnors from ArtsClub.com. If you want a chance to partake in this mischievous masterwork, the play is at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage until February 22.