Richard Bean (author of The English Game) and James Corden (co-writer and star of Gavin and Stacey), are two guys with a remarkable track record for explaining English manhood to itself. A combination described by some1 as “bloke-theatre nirvana” back when One Man, Two Guvnors was first mooted at the National Theatre. Bean adapting Carlo Goldoni’s eighteenth-century farce Servant of Two Masters, with Corden in the title role, seemed to promise an ironic modern look at masculinity in crisis. That is not what it delivered. But we were laughing so hard we could barely breathe, let alone remember what we’d been expecting when we came in.
For this show is funny. I mean, it is really funny. Not the kind of funny you might associate with a National Theatre adaptation of an eighteenth-century Italian play. It’s splutteringly, potato-throwingly, unreasonably hilarious. It’s the sort of show that you try to explain to your friends by getting up and rushing round the table, waving your arms and gurning, whilst searching for the gesture to indicate “enormous tartan trousers”. James Corden, swathed in clashing checks, is a terrific modern version of Harlequin from the Commedia del Arte – as he says at the beginning of the second half “Anyone pick that up? Talk about it in the interval? Maybe to impress a date, over a glass of wine? No? Good, nice to know we haven’t got any total dicks in tonight.” But he is also Billy Bunter, Toad of Toad Hall, even Uncle Monty: a disgraceful, uncontainable and very English presence on the stage. Michael Billington wrote that this play would be a huge success if Corden can hold off the film offers, but the way he throws his body around the Adelphi, it may be his chiropractor rather than his agent who coaxes him away.
Bean has planted the show in the early 60s amongst small-time London crooks. There’s a father in debt, an overeager thespian boyfriend, a dead gangster’s twin, a posh boy with a deathwish and a dolly bird who cooks the books. The characters are all writ large and writ from the British Bummper Book Of Villains Was Like In Them Days. But where another writer might have whipped up some queasy “Kraystalgia”, harking back to that favourite English Neverland when sociopathic thugs had “standards”, Bean slings these types around the plot with a joyous recognition that it was never like this and never could be. The cast follow him into the game with crazy gusto, and he gives them plenty to do: the physical gags are uproarious, the speeches splendidly overwrought and at the centre is the big lad in the mismatched check, wondering what he’s got himself into. The musical interludes, written by Grant Olding and performed by pitch-perfect retro outfit The Craze, take the madness even further. Want to see a geezer in a fez performing a rock n roll solo on a xylophone? A bloke in a pith helmet playing a collection of motor horns? Well, why didn’t you say, step this way, there’s this show you might want to have a gander at…
1It may have been me. But the friend I was having dinner with repeated it in a scornful and incredulous voice, so technically she said it too.