Music Box Theatre. By Richard Bean. Dir. Nicholas Hytner. With James Corden. 2hrs 30mins. One intermission.
Hunger, like all urgent and uncontrollable bodily functions, is an eternal wellspring of humor. Think of Charlie Chaplin grimly carving up his boot in The Gold Rush, Mr. Creosote’s last supper and that old, reliable sight gag, the fellow desert-islander who morphs into a talking turkey leg. Tummy rumbles equal belly laughs, and both abound in the National Theatre’s gobsmackingly funny One Man, Two Guvnors. Driven in its first half by the peckish desperation of freelance flunky Francis Henshall (James Corden), this virtuoso banquet of slapstick farce and verbal jousting brings with it a shocking revelation: How starved we were for comedy.
Richard Bean updates the Carlo Goldoni semi-commedia Arlecchino servitore di due padroni (1753) with an inspired setting: Brighton, England, in the early ’60s. The new context allows for neat cultural add-ons in Nicholas Hytner’s cleverly assembled production: the daffy music-hall routines that ruled before Beyond the Fringe and Monty Python changed the face of British comedy; and skiffle music, which likewise gave way to rock. So there’s almost a prelapsarian innocence to this loopy, postwar cartoon of England. But on to the tickle-feather of a plot: Famished and broke Francis hires himself out to two “guvnors” (bosses). One’s a dead gangster’s twin sister (Jemima Rooper), cross-dressed as the brother while she plans to elope with the public-school prat Stanley Stubbers (Oliver Chris, blissfully twittish). Stubbers, not knowing that his fiancée is in town, employs Francis as factotum. The first act is all about food, and the second concerns sex. Once Francis gets fed (after a spectacularly funny dual-dinner scene during which he must keep the guvnors separate), his thoughts turn lightly to romance.
Not enough praise can be heaped on Corden’s physical genius, whether trying to lift an improbably heavy trunk, getting into a knock-down, drag-out fight with himself or dragooning audience volunteers into the madness. I would happily enumerate dozens more jokes and catchphrases (“Soggy biscuits!”), but this is a meal you should taste for yourself.—David Cote
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