Here’s something new: going to the theatre to see a farce. Well, kind of. I went to the Curzon Mayfair, a cinema, on Thursday night to enjoy the latest NT Live link-up, whereby a performance from the very stage of the National Theatre is beamed live to a number of cinemas up and down this land, and in fact around the world, where it will be nearly live. (If you want to find out more about this fantastic initiative – even more pertient if you don’t live in stupid London – check out their website.) The play was One Man, Two Guvnors, adapted by Richard Bean from the 1743 Italian Commedia dell’arte farce Arlecchino servitore di due padroni, or Servant of Two Masters, directed by Nicholas Hytner and starring James Corden, as a modern-day truffaldino, or harlequin. It was a revelation.
A summer smash at the National with five-star reviews stamped on its forehead, here was our chance to see it at cinema prices, and – as per previous NT Live events we’ve attended, Hamlet and Frankenstein – with the advantage of close-ups and other filmic devices. I didn’t know what to expect, not having read any of the reviews, or even really looked into the type of comedy it was. I knew it would be interesting to see Corden back where he belongs, onstage, and I knew he’d been praised from the rooftops for his work in it. I knew it was set in the early 60s, but that was about it. I didn’t know anything about it being Italian. So I was quite taken aback when the curtains parted – after some live skiffle songs by a band in period costume – and some actors started acting as if they were perhaps in an episode of On The Buses. They winked at the audience, and declaimed unrealistically, and spoke in comedy voices, and I guess the 1963 setting merely added to the sitcom feel. I thought it was funny, and cleverly written, and when a man who was clearly a woman (Jemima Rooper) turned up, I started to “get it”. I was watching a farce. Now, my experience of the theatre is limited. I understand that it’s not like watching a film. It’s sort of unrealistic by definition. It’s men and women on a stage pretending to be something they’re not. I like the theatricality of the medium, but it takes a bit of decompression when you’re so used to seeing fiction that has been filmed and lit and treated to look real.
One Man, Two Guvnors is basically about Corden’s corpulent bodyguard (I’m not insulting him, it’s part of the character) taking on two jobs – he works for the woman pretending to be her dead twin brother, and for the posh man (Oliver Chris from The Office and Green Wing) who killed her dead twin brother, both of whom have a trunk, and are expecting a letter from the Post Office, and don’t realise that the other is also in Brighton. Confusion ensues. Now that I know it was originally set in 18th century Venice, I can sort of understand it better, but the brilliance of this reworking is that it’s been redrawn for a modern audience. As a fan of slapstick as a kid, I really enjoyed the physical silliness. There’s a long scene in which Corden, who’s really hungry, has to serve both masters a gourmet meal in two dining rooms without either of them finding out, while squirreling away food for himself, and it involves a “member of the audience” being dragged up onstage, and the whole thing might have been out of particularly skilful edition of Crackerjack or Right Charlie with Charlie Cairoli. It’s like pantomime for grown-up theatregoers. It’s funny, and mad, and designed by experts to make you hoot out loud, but it’s also, I would say, an acquired taste.
The people either side of us were guffawing and crying and squealing with delight. I occasionally snorted and shook my chair, but on the whole, I was appreciating it inwardly. James Corden was incredible: funny on every level. Some of the schtick he did with the trunk, and with a dustbin lid, and with the gourmet meal, and some letters, was exceptional. He moves lithely for a big lad. He also dealt superbly with a seemingly unexpected bit of audience interaction, although I’m prepared to discover that this was also planted and set up. Whichever it was, he either improvised well, or pretended to, and both are skills.
Props also to an actor called Tom Edden, who turned up as an 87-year-old waiter with the requisite shaky hand and pacemaker, and stole the show. He seems to have been singled out in every review I’ve subsquently read. This was physical comedy of the very highest order, and perhaps the sort that would only work onstage. (Ironically, I was watching it on a cinema screen, but you know what I mean.) Although I am drawn to verbal comedy in my adult life, the childhood slapstick fan still exists within me, and I’m a sucker for a good pratfall. Tom Edden may be the king of this particular discipline.
So, I’ve gone and seen an actual Italian farce. Tick that one off then. (It made sense of Fawlty Towers, in many ways.)