‘One Man, Two Guvnors’ was chuckle-worthy.
Brisbane Arts Theatre presents a farce that aims to grab your attention and take you on a comical journey with all the familiar tropes and several knowing winks at the audience. ‘One Man, Two Guvnors’ is an English adaptation of a 1743 Italian Commedia dell’arte play, now set in 1963 Brighton.
It follows Francis Henshall, an out-of-work musician, who becomes employed by two people at the same time while desperately trying to prevent either party from knowing. The piece aims to use this setup to tell an increasingly chaotic, escalating tale of lies and confusion, with erratic character comedy, slapstick, and intense wordplay.
‘One Man, Two Guvnors’ opens with an engagement party that is quickly crushed by the bride-to-be’s former fiancé. Believed to be dead, Roscoe Crabbe, a London gangster, has allegedly survived being stabbed to death and has come to collect the debt owed to him by his former fiancé’s father Charlie “The Duck” Clench. At the centre of all of this is Henshall, Crabbe’s “minder,” who is motivated solely by a desire to eat. Henshall then takes a second job working for the overly posh Stanley Stubbers. What he doesn’t know is that Roscoe Crabbe is actually his own sister Rachel in disguise, and that Stubbers is the one that killed Roscoe, and he and Rachel are in fact in love and on the run from the law. It all sounds like a very convoluted setup but the show thankfully conveys all these framing devices clearly, and one at a time, with some melodramatic soliloquies from all involved.
While the show does an excellent job setting up its dominoes in the first act, the strength of a farce comes from the way they fall in the second act. ‘One Man, Two Guvnors’ has its most chaotic, elaborate farcical sequence at the end of its first act, and it is glorious! But it leaves the second act with less to do, and its resolution comes in a bit too quickly. This isn’t the Arts Theatre’s fault, but it did lead to a less energetic pace in the second act.
The lighting design by George Pitt was utilised effectively. Throughout the show, various characters address the audience, accompanied by a spotlight being shined on them. Likewise, there were some sequences that were brought into the audience with the house lights utilised as well as a hallway light through the middle.
Scenes were opened and bookended by songs from the Beatles’ debut album ‘Please Please Me,’ a change from professional productions, which typically feature a live skiffle band. As a compromise, ‘Please Please Me’ gets the job of establishing the setting and tone done well.
Sets, props and costumes were all appropriate to the setting and effectively placed the audience in 1960s Brighton. Characters coming in and out of doors at a breakneck pace is always a big part of a farce and the set (designed by Una Hollingworth and constructed by Scott Lymbery) allowed for a lot of chaotic entrances and exits with characters being hit in the face and making some big messes.
Rather than having one director, ‘One Man, Two Guvnors’ was led by a “Directorial Team” consisting of Blake Young, Michelle Radu and Stephanie O’Shea, the latter two also being part of the cast (though only O’Shea performed for opening night). Having three directors runs the risk of a “too many cooks” situation arising, but while one can only speculate about the behind-the-scenes of the production, the piece felt cohesive and consistent in its approach to comedy and story.
Spearheading the cast as Francis Henshall was Douglas Berry, who charmed and delighted the audience with all his stage time. As a comedic protagonist, Berry was all you could ask for: likeable, constantly confused, but never lacking in motivation. He was also given the exceptionally daunting task of asking audience members up on stage.
Few things are more intimidating than audience participation, for both the cast and the audience involved. Thankfully everything went swimmingly for this iteration, with two audience members first being forced to do an intimacy exercise with each other before being mercifully allowed to return to their seats, then a third audience member was called up and mercilessly refused the right to return to his seat for a large chunk of the first act. One of the funniest moments of the show came from this third audience member being asked to watch a door but not understanding which one, in a totally unscripted moment.
The rest of the ensemble for the opening night were all in strong form, with no weak links in the ranks. For a show with a wide array of posh and cockney English accents, no one ever seemed to lose their dialect, which is virtually unheard of in amateur theatre and even some professional productions. Standouts were Eleni Koutsoukis as Pauline Clench, who made an absolute meal out of her befuddled character’s relentless stupidity and nailed the cockney dialect, John Da Cruz as Harry Dangle, who was burdened with an absurdly complicated legal monologue and never missed a beat while delivering it, Jordan Schulte as Alan Dangle, the largest ham of an already ham-filled cast, Alexander O’Connell as Stanley Stubbers, who was an immaculate upper-class twit, and Pheobe Lovell as Alfie, who was very good at falling over.
As a comedy, ‘One Man, Two Guvnors’ kept its audience laughing and engaged. Even when the plot started to lag it was still filled with punchy character comedy from a group of actors that were giving it their all and having a great time. If you’re on the lookout for something fun, witty and silly, ‘One Man, Two Guvnors’ is worth the watch. Just don’t be shocked if you find you’re a part of the comedy yourself!
‘One Man, Two Guvnors’ performs until Saturday, 14 January 2023 at Brisbane Arts Theatre. For more information visit their website.