One Man, Two Guvnors
National Theatre Great Britain @ Her Majesty’s Theatre
2:00pm, Wed 6 Mar 2013
Let it never be said that I didn’t absolutely love the first half of One Man, Two Guvnors – it was a masterful display of laugh-a-second slapstick comedy. But the problem is that this reworking of commedia dell’arte exemplum Servant of Two Masters is, at its heart, a deceitful production that takes advantage of the audience’s goodwill… and whilst there were many, many, many audience members who loved this presentation, it managed to rub me completely the wrong way.
Presented almost in a vaudevillian style, with skiffle band The Craze performing live during set changes, One Man, Two Guvnors really milks laughs through outlandish delivery, “mistakes” that remind me of Sound and Fury‘s stock trade, and plenty of fourth-wall-breaking asides to the audience. And whilst the early dalliances with the audience felt gloriously spontaneous – I’m thinking of the hummus sandwich incident, here – I started to get a little annoyed with the constant references back to the crowd: lead performer Owain Arthur’s fits of laughter at audience “responses” didn’t quite sell me – they felt loud, hammy… fake.
But the end of the first Act was a highlight for me, because it’s where everything went so right – and so seriously wrong – for the show. After “encouraging” the impeccably dressed audience member Caroline Patterson onstage, she was banished to a part of the stage where she could see nothing… and was, initially, ignored. The rest of the cast then engaged in a slapstick masterclass within a restaurant setting, with aged and infirm waiter Alfie providing guffaws of physical humour, before Patterson’s presence was exposed and she was messily caught in the crossfire of a food-fight.
Dress ruined, you could see the shock on her face as she was led into the wings at the closing of the Act.
I went to the interval thinking that they’d genuinely crossed the line. I retrospectively felt ashamed at myself for laughing so heartily at the performance; the considerable goodwill that the performance had earned was forgotten, and instead the production started the second act from within a deep, dark hole in my mind… and it was unable to claw its way out. By the end of the show, I was still feeling incredibly negative towards the show; seeing “Caroline Patterson” in the curtain call, bowing and singing the closing number, felt like a slap in the face. You’ve been cheated, my cheeks throbbed. And I don’t like that.
Talking to other people who had seen – and loved – the show confirmed that the hummus sandwich gag, as well as Ms Patterson, were indeed plants. And yes, I had some hearty laughs, and was thoroughly entertained for stretches… but that dishonesty cheapens the ordeal in retrospect, and leaves me incredibly disappointed.
— Pete Muller (@festivalfreakAU) March 6, 2013