They say that when life gets chaotic, things descend into farce. But on the stage the opposite is true; ascend into farce, the most sublimely demanding of dramatic forms. And this being the case, the cast of One Man Two Guvnors not only hit the heights in Keswick; in the words of their musical director, they blew the roof off the theatre. It’s still out there in the lake somewhere.
Confession: this reviewer was prepared to be po-faced. The hype was excessively over-the-top; surely this couldn’t actually be “the funniest show on the planet”? And so, in the opening scene with its 1960s mores and the sort of jokes that set a piece firmly in its historical context, I tried sanctimoniously not to laugh. And failed, miserably.
For this is a piece of theatre that’s had audiences laughing for nearly 300 years. Richard Bean’s classic – see how quickly I was won over – is actually an adaptation of a 1743 comedy, Servant of Two Masters, by Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni. A brilliant adaptation, it’s quickly apparent. Two early throwaway lines were noted: “First names are for girls and Norwegians” (this from public-school-educated Stanley, played with increasing levels of manic absurdity by Laurie Jamieson), and “It’s 1963 and angry young men are writing plays about Alans”. After that, no more notes. My pen fell on the floor during a fit of robust chuckling, and it was time to stop thinking, stop analysing, and become immersed in the utterly chaotic hilarious genius of it all. One Man Two Guvnors has a thin plot, a kind of storyline, but no one notices. This is all about brilliant character performances, slapstick and impeccable split-second comic timing, and this is why farce is so demanding of a cast. And how this team rose to the occasion, particularly towards the end of the first act when the violently-energetic choreographed entrances and exits had a symphonic quality.
At the heart of the play is bumbling, lovable, harlequin-suited Francis, with Jordan Pearson giving the performance of his young lifetime, notably in the preposterous conversation with himself and a dustbin lid. Would he actually have enough breath to come back on stage in the second half? Well, yes, and also to morph into his alter-ego and nemesis, the mysterious Irishman Paddy, stereotyped with a priceless touch of Riverdance. His happy ending is achieved with a Keswick theatre favourite, Polly Lister (Dolly) whose many great moments included a short soliloquy, a 1960s vision of the future, “with a woman prime minister who would be compassionate…”.Each character is played with excessive and extravagant stereotyping, from the hapless and ignorant Pauline (Lauren Sturgess) and her fey flambuoyant actor-fiancée Alan (Qasim Mahmood), to mean and scheming Charlie (Rodney Matthew) and opportunistic lawyer Harry (Karl Seth).
Siobhan Athwal slips seamlessly between Rachel and her allegedly murdered twin brother, while Javier Marzan as Alfie demonstrates that Julie Walters doesn’t have a monopoly on ancient waiters with a bowl of soup. (We’re not surprised to learn that Javier was the physical comedy creator for the Paddington and Paddington 2 films.) Alexander Bean (Lloyd) and Matthew Ganley (Gareth) complete this truly star-studded line-up and they, along with the rest of the cast, demonstrate further, musical, versatility. For along the way, before, and during the show, they take turns in a series of terrific skiffle band routines; Dolly, Rachel and Pauline also do a slick vocal number. Beverley Sisters meet The Supremes.
The fabulous set – the entire show, under director Lotte Wakeham – has been transported across the north from the Bolton Octagon Theatre to the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse on its way to Keswick. It’s part of the new collaborative project bringing touring productions to the Theatre by the Lake instead of the long-established summer rep plays, a very different way for them to operate, and a very different experience for Cumbrian audiences. But it’s working well, representing the very best of regional theatre across the north, and allowing for both short and longer runs. And occasionally bigger numbers in the cast, as this one here.
They all had a wonderful rapport with the audience, of whom several members made it onto the stage, and so, along with our urgent insistence that you go along and see this show, we might recommend a seat on the front row.
One Man Two Guvnors runs at Theatre by the Lake until September 3.
Details and tickets: https://www.theatrebythelake.com/whats-on/
Image Credits: Pamela Raith