Saturday, April 28, 2012

One Man, Two Guvnors at Cineplex

 One Man, Two Guvnors is a hilarious comedy that performed to rave reviews in the UK and has now traveled to Broadway.  It is a modern retelling of a 16th century Italian play called "Servant of Two Masters", which was written in the style of Commedia del Arte.  This is a type of theatre featuring masked archetypical characters who acted out a storyline that followed a preset formula.  Usually one or more sets of lovers are prevented from marrying by greedy or misguided elders, and turn to their cunning servants for help. 

 The setting has been transposed to Brighton, England in 1963.  At the engagement party of Pauline and Alan, it is learned that Pauline's father had previously arranged for her to marry a small time gangster named Roscoe who was recently killed.  Roscoe's minder (servant) Francis is sent to inform them that Roscoe is not dead and wants to claim his financee plus her accompanying dowry.  In reality, Roscoe was indeed accidentally killed by Stanley, the boyfriend of his twin sister Rachel, and it is Rachel impersonating her brother in order to get money to flee to Australia with Stanley.

The first act is driven by Francis' insatiable hunger and his quest for money to buy more food.  He achieves this by taking on a second job, coincidentally with Stanley.  Chaos ensues as the easily confused Francis tries to keep "Roscoe" and Stanley from knowing he is working for two "guvnors" and trying to keep straight which instructions came from which master, and whose money, mail or belongings he is currently handling.

 The misunderstandings culminate into the lengthy climatic scene of the first act.  Francis tries to serve dinner to his two bosses who are unknowingly staying in the same hotel while also hoarding away part of the meal for his own consumption.  With each course, Francis takes his cut - three chicken balls per plate turn into two chicken balls for you, one for me, and then one chicken ball for you and two for me.  He drinks part of the soup from the tureen, spilling half of it on himself.  He cuts off the bodies of the fish dish, leaving only the fish heads garnished with parsley, passing if off as exotic French cuisine.

 Adding to the hi-jinx is the newly hired 87 year old waiter Alfie, with the defective heart and trembling hands.  The first time Alfie carries a plate balancing a knife and fork across the stage, his shakes caused the cutlery to rattle so violently that it was a miracle they did not fall off.  Alfie is the cartoon character that takes a licking and keeps on ticking as he falls down the stairs, gets a door slammed into him and takes a hit in the face with a cricket bat (used as a "slap" stick in Commedia del Arte tradition, giving original to the term slapstick).

 Physical comedy is key in this play and the actor who plays Francis gives a tour de force performance.   He gets his tongue caught in a mousetrap trying to steal the cheese.  Not being able to afford a pint of beer, he finds leftover booze at the bar and mixes beer, wine, liquor and milk into a single mug.  You wince as he drinks the concoction and then laugh out loud when he spits out a cigarette butt.   In one scene were he is mulling over an issue, he ends up getting into a fight with himself, slapping his own face, choking himself with his tie and slamming a garbage bin lid into his face.   When asked to carry Stanley's luggage into the hotel, he finds it too heavy to lift but gives it a hilarious effort as he puts his whole body into trying to move the trunk.

Audience participation and breaking of the fourth wall was a big part of the show.  Unable to move the trunk on his own, Francis solicits help by dragging up two unsuspecting audience members onto the stage, having great fun with them in the process.   During the dinner scene, he asks a woman from the audience to to help him hold the soup tureen as he hides his share of the food in it.  As the scene gets more and more manic with the poor woman still on stage, you start to wonder whether she is actually part of the show.  By the time she gets splashed with wine and sprayed with a fire extinguisher, you know that she is a plant, but the scene was played out so realistically that it was fun to go along for the ride.  Improvisation was actively encouraged to keep the play fresh from show to show, but the actors are so skilled at it that it is difficult to tell which parts are scripted versus off the cuff.

The main characters are identifiable by the stock characters of Commedia del Arte.  Francis is "Harlequin", the cunning but buffonish servant.  His love interest Dolly plays the Smerldina role, the intelligent servant who is in control of the situation and understands everything that is happening.  The two sets of lovers each have interesting traits that add to the humour.  Pauline is a simple minded girl  described as "unspoiled by education" whose main line is "I don't understand".   Alan, who wants to be an actor, enunciates and postures as if he were Laurence Olivier.   Stanley looks the part of the leading man with the pearly white teeth and perfect hair but still comes across as goofy.   Although pretending to be the rough and tough Roscoe,  in moments of vulnerability, Rachel's true personality comes across.

 Scene changes were interestingly ushered in by musical interludes.  A 60s Beatles lookalike band named "The Craze" sang songs for the first few changes.  Then one by one, the main cast started to join into the musical numbers.  The Francis character played the banjo and xylophone.  The women sang dressed like the Andrew Sisters.  Stanley played with a set of horns like those that circus clowns used.  Most peculiar was the Alan character, who ripped open his shirt and played a beat on his bare chest.

A performance of One Man, Two Guvnors at the National Theatre in London was filmed and simulcast to a audience watching in real time in a park outside of the theatre.  This filming was recently shown at Cineplex movie theatres across North America.  At our screening, the audience was howling with laughter, especially during the first act.  It will be shown once again on May 5, 2012 and is definitely worth watching.

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