We use cookies on this website to improve how it works and how it’s used. For more information on our cookie policy please read our Privacy Policy

Accept & Continue

I knew well in advance I was destined to enjoy this show but, on the night, my expectations were exceeded enormously. 

It really was only a matter of time before the comic genius of Michael Hugo just had to be let loose on One Man, Two Guvnors... with predictably stratospheric consequences. 

Let me backtrack. Playwright Richard Bean pounced on Carlo Goldini’s gentle 1746 Italian farce The Servant of Two Masters 15 years ago and created a much updated comic masterpiece, that sold out at the National Theatre and across the Nation. With James Corden and then Rufus Hound in the central role, it rampaged its way into theatrical history - if only for the number of audience hernias it caused.

Having rifled Goldini’s plot and characters, Bean paid little attention to the 18th century original. Now, however, director Conrad Nelson has afforded Bean’s 21st century version total respect ... whilst pushing the comic boundaries to the absolute verge of breaking point. It’s so funny, the hernias may become heart attacks. 

I won’t bother you with the plot, or we’ll be here all night. Suffice to say that - set in the Brighton underworld of 1963 - it involves (allegedly) identical twins, two identical envelopes, two identical trunks, a great deal of fibbing and – in true farce fashion – the removal of two pairs of trousers. 

What Nelson adds is an excellently authentic skiffle band (the actors doubling as highly commensurate musicians) and an innovative stage entrance and exit. Deprived, in the New Vic’s circular space, of the essential farcical ingredient of doors, a gaping hole appears ... which is funny even when nobody is falling down it.

The production boasts the best slapstick I have ever seen. Diminutive Michael Hugo, playing the servant engaged by two separate gangsters, sets the ball rolling with his peanut routine. He gate-crashes an engagement party, with nibbles provided. So, one by one, he throws them into the air and, one by one, he catches them in his mouth. The audience now is on well-plotted tenterhooks. How many times can he do it without failing? It’s going so well, he tries it sitting down in an unstable armchair. The resultant hysteria is long and loud, and the audience is led by the nose into laughter traps like that all evening.

Hugo is a wonderful clown ... the puniest henchman you can image. He tries to talk tough, but soon succumbs to his own hopelessness. He is quite brilliant when dealing off the cuff with unsuspecting audience members .... and when collecting letters from a Brighton post office he just has to throw in a joke about Horizon. His physical comedy routine with a heavy trunk is performed with absolute precision and, as required by commedia dell’arte tradition, he looks hangdog hungry. So, he’s delighted when the action moves to what, in 1963, is a revolutionary concept...  “a pub that does food”.

And it is in the climactic kitchen scene that Hugo is, for once in his career, upstaged. Enter Alfie, the doddery 86-year-old waiter, on his first day in a new job...

Nick Haverson, with a perfect pedigree in physical comedy, is devastatingly funny in this cameo role. Juddering uncontrollably around the stage with a fixed grimace and legs and arms bearing no relation to each other, he is most dangerous when carrying plates of food. With splayed out feet, and suffering from every twitch imaginable, Haverson’s body control is simply amazing. And just when you think he can’t get any funnier, he turns Alfie’s pacemaker up a couple of notches and goes into overdrive. To top it all, he and Hugo execute a brilliant curling brush joke to smooth his path; a gag that must surely have come up in rehearsal. 

After the respite of a much-needed interval, the comedy gets wittier. We are now in the territory of 1960’s gender battles. There is even wild speculation that Britain may one day have a female Prime Minister who is kind, compassionate and caring. (But then again this is farce.)

Commedia dell’arte is totally dependent on team work and Nelson has hand-picked everyone. Each character is beautifully over-clichéd (as befits the art form) and you will see on stage shades of some of Britain’s best loved comedians. The spirits of Rik Mayall, Barbara Windsor, Jimmy Edwards, Charlie Williams et al shine through.

If you too are in need of a jolly good laugh, I can’t recommend this show enough. If I could give it 6 stars, I would. It is on at The New Vic for a month, and it is simply not long enough.

Five Stars

One Man,Two Guvnors was reviewed by Chris Eldon Lee at the New Vic Theatre in Newcastle-under-Lyme, where it runs until Saturday 11 May.