❉ Pro bono! West Wales’ Torch Theatre has done the smash hit proud with fast-paced farcical goings on, ribald seaside humour, and toe-tapping musical numbers.
“There’s farce, true love, revenge, beehived dolly-birds, chaos and confusion, Jamaican ex-cons, musical interludes, and a lot of slapstick and broad comedy. In other words, the perfect night out and a real celebration of British comedy at its best.”
A 21st century retro revival of a 18th century Italian farce, set in 1963 Brighton, reborn in a theatre in West Wales in 2018. Now that’s comedy for the ages. One Man Two Guvnors, playwright Richard Bean’s rip-roaring remix of Carlo Gordoni’s 1743 commedia dell arte A Servant Of Two Masters has been slaying ‘em in the aisles since its 2011 National Theatre debut, and after scooping Tony Awards on Broadway, here it is bringing farce and slapstick, with an oh-so postwar British twist, to the audiences of Pembrokeshire and beyond as the Torch Theatre’s latest production.
One Man Two Guvnors kicked off a 16-date slot at the much-loved Torch Theatre on Wednesday 3 October with an opening night that tickled to breaking point the funny bones of a hugely receptive audience, in a well-cast production that quite simply brought the house down with its winning formula of fast-paced farcical goings on, ribald seaside humour, and toe-tapping musical numbers.
One Man Two Guvnors riffs on classic comedy traditions that span the ages, from Britcoms such as Fawlty Towers, Bottom, Father Ted and Only Fools And Horses right through to Renaissance theatre and Shakespearean romps such as Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by way of Brian Rix’s trouser-dropping bedroom farces, the Carry On films and more than a touch of the end-of-pier tradition of music hall & variety shows and the polished, improvised audience interplay in the tradition of Les Dawson.
For those of you unfamiliar with the basic shape of this play, it’s a high octane farce comedy concerning the misadventures of the gluttonous and perpetually ravenous chancer Francis Henshall – here played winningly by Christian Patterson (having just finished a run in the West End of The Way of the World), complete with Welsh brogue – as he plays off two competing and adversarial ‘guvnors’ in gangland 1963 Brighton, the public school spiv Stanley Stubbers (James Mack) and Roscoe Crabbe, actually his twin sister Rachel in man-drag (Gabrielle Sheppard). There’s food, true love, revenge, beehived dolly-birds, chaos and confusion, Jamaican ex-cons, musical interludes, and a lot of slapstick and broad comedy. In other words, the perfect night out and a real celebration of British comedy at its best.
In the music hall style, Patterson holds the production together, frequently involving and engaging the audience, as the simultaneously guileless and cunning Francis, channelling the likes of fully-figured comedy legends Ronnie Barker and Les Dawson, whether he’s delivering telegrams, attempting to shift a trunk, wooing the feisty proto-feminist Dolly (Ideal’s Nicky Reynolds) or juggling the demands of his two guvnors with, as the old saying goes, hilarious consequences!
Top-tier support is provided by a well-cast, diverse ensemble of vividly created, likeable characters all giving larger than life performances as befits the play’s broad comedy, with notable turns including Charlotte Workman (so good in the Torch’s 2015 production of Kneehigh’s Brief Encounter) as dippy yet sincere Pauline, Alex Parry (Torchwood, Dirk Gently) as the craven Charlie, the Torch’s very own Dame, Dion Davies, cast against type as Latin-spouting lawyer Harry Dangle, Charles Angiama as ex-con Lloyd, Gabrielle Sheppard as her dead twin brother (it’s confusing, I know) and the aforementioned James Mack as the Leslie Phillips-indebted posh gangster Stanley Stubbers, whose dialogue is littered with memorable unique aphorisms (“Country Life!”).
Patterson endeared himself to the audience from his first entrance, and held the audience in the palm of his cake-greedy hand, acknowledging the ‘fourth wall’ of the audience with every tic, innuendo and meta-commentary on the play’s unfolding, which made for great play when his skills for improvisation were called for, always making the audience feel totally included, with his frequent asides and dumb-shows.
Musical interludes feature members of the cast ably supported by Jerome Davies and musical director Lloyd Grayshon; drawing on pre-Merseybeat country and skiffle tunes such as Midnight Special and Mule Skinner Blues, adding to the period setting.
Special mention must also be made of Gwydion Rhys as Pauline’s betrothed, Alan Dangle – Alan, you see, fancies himself as an ac-tor, darling, and spouts dialogue deliberately aimed at the back row (his soliloquys are notable for an amusing fascination with buses); Rhys’ performance leaves no ‘bad acting’ touchstone unturned, and it’s fair to say his topless musical cameo met the approval of the women in the audience and a few men as well.
“Dangerous actor” Alan Dangle is a mashup of Rik Mayall and Richard E Grant’s Withnail, a striking contrast to his previous Torch role in WWI centenary play, The Wood, but nothing compared to director Peter Doran’s frankly scene-stealing appearances as the elderly, decrepit waiter Alfie: Imagine a cross between Father Jack, Terry Gilliam’s jailer in Life Of Brian, and Lucky in Waiting For Godot, and that’s Alfie. Knockabout physical humour that would have exhausted Adrian Edmondson circa Bottom! A treat for the audience, but I’d love to see the state of his life insurance policy as he took repeated prat falls, cricket bats and slamming doors to the head and much more besides.
All’s well that ends well, of course, and One Man Two Guvnors ends with a jaunty, swinging, full-cast singalong in the 1963 tradition of jiving rock and roll, but not before the Torch audience have loved and laughed through a breathlessly entertaining, riotous two hours of gags, physical comedy, innuendo, light satire and organised chaos. A splendid time is guaranteed for all.
❉ ‘One Man, Two Guvnors’ is playing at the Torch Theatre, Milford Haven, until Saturday 20 October 2018. To book tickets or for more information visit https://www.torchtheatre.co.uk/one-man-two-guvnors/ or call Box Office on 01646 695267.
❉ Photography © Drew Buckley Photography.