We have reached peak James Corden saturation point. I am very tired of watching that man gleefully coordinate carpool karaoke with all the artistic conviction of Christopher Nolan choreographing the rotating corridor scene in Inception. And so it was that when I heard that Mermaids was presenting Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors for its first Byre slot this year, I was apprehensive. With Corden’s Tony award-winning production being screened across the country by the National Theatre Live scheme, I wasn’t sure if this was a show competing for the limelight with a major cultural moment. I was pleasantly surprised to be proven wrong.
Directed by Isobel Sinclair and produced by Ellie Hope, One Man, Two Guvnors boasted a strong female production team; something for which I was greatly excited. Hope had proven her credentials as a redoubtable producer with last year’s production of a similar comedy, The 39 Steps, and I was intrigued to watch Sinclair’s directorial debut. In a professional space like the Byre, a student production can find it hard to fill such a wide stage – but the team pulled it off with marked confidence, making use of frequent set changes, including an astonishing transition into Brighton pier that had audience members including myself emit an audible gasp. Credit must go to set designer Natasha Maurer and stage manager Cate Hanlon, and although these transitions could have felt at times too lengthy, intersecting period songs from cast members kept the crowd gently entertained.
I had never read the script of One Man, Two Guvnors and was happy to discover how quicksilver the wit was. Rarely was a line delivered that didn’t turn on an innuendo. What impressed me even more than an already humourous piece of writing was the skill with which the cast, and particularly the ensemble, incorporated physical comedy. Charlie Flynn deserves especial mention for his portrayal of the poor, beleaguered Alfie – a testament to how even a slim role can be fleshed out by careful attention to detail. Alfie fast became an audience favourite as Flynn shuddered and jerked his way across the stage in the guise of a geriatric waiter.
In fact, a mastery of physical comedy abounded, and seemed to me to become the standout strength of the show. Ed Polsue’s depiction of Francis – or, if you prefer, Corden’s role – was generally flawless. His command of the text material was sound but his most inspired moments came in the form of his interactions with the audience. Nobody can claim a stage and win over spectators with quite so much gleeful ease as Polsue, and his knowing asides and glances out were delightfully mercurial.
As a theatregoer with a vested interest in the depiction of female characters on stage, I was deeply impressed by Lucy Bidie’s portrayal of Dolly – a foil to Francis who may lack his number of lines but packed an equivalent punch. Her musings on life as a modern woman were delivered with brash warmth, and in a show in which accents were enthusiastically attempted but often lacked conviction, Bidie’s remained laudibly consistent. Meanwhile, Lydia Milne and Louis Wilson, fresh from performing together in the Fringe production of Forbidden Fruit, exhibited wonderful chemistry as a comedic duo (and Wilson did much to humanize a character whose frequently off-colour remarks could otherwise have alienated a socially-conscious student audience.) Perhaps one of my favourite things to observe in any production is the palpable sense that a cast is truly enjoying themselves on stage. Rarely have I seen a show where such a feeling was so pervasive.
Where the production fell down were in matters of pacing. It must be noted that after such a short rehearsal period, this fault is thoroughly forgivable; it can be difficult to tighten such an unwieldy thing as a comedy, that relies so fundamentally on a strict certainty of timing, with such a limited time to perfect. Nonetheless, there were moments when the show seemed to slump, which were noticeable mainly for how they contrasted with those other moments in which friction and pace shot through a scene like the snap of a rubber band. At times, I felt the show dragged; it would not be right to say the script merited trimming, because generally all was done in the service of advancing the plot. However, an audience intervention involving a sandwich seemed to slow the show down to its detriment.
Overall, the cast and crew of One Man, Two Guvnors ought to be distinctly proud of themselves. I’m excited to keep an eye out for whatever this comedic cohort achieve next.