Review, One Man, Two Guvnors, Cardiff Open Air Theatre Festival by Bethan England

 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

I had expected to be viewing this 1963 set comedia dell’arte in glorious sunshine…it is July after all! However, the Harlequin, Francis, and his motley crew had a typical wet Welsh summer to perform in…on the 5th July!

After weeks of General Election coverage, voting and exit polls, I was feeling in need of a few good belly laughs and I knew One Man, Two Guvnors by Richard Bean would not disappoint. The set was as colourful as the subject matter, not even dented by the constant downpour of rain that evening. The bright backdrop is versatile throughout, with a space reserved on the roof for some very catchy musical numbers!

One Man Two Guvnors is an adaptation of Servant of Two Masters, a comedy play, from 1746 by Carlo Goldoni. The exotic Italian location is replaced with 1963 Brighton, the Harlequin becomes an out of work skiffle player, the food he is constantly pining for becomes the haddock, chips and mushy peas served by the Cricketer’s Arms (a pub…that does food!). The plot is remarkably faithful to the original play; the woman in disguise as her murdered brother, the Harlequin bemoaning his empty stomach and the confusion that arises when he attempts (ill-advisedly) to take on and serve two masters, without one, or the other, discovering.

One Man Two Guvnors takes that storyline and slaps the action firmly in 1963. The script is smart; hilarious, pacey and full of puns and tongue twisters. The farce and physical humour elements are particularly strong, such as when Francis argues with, and manages to knock out, himself. I must say, I had huge admiration for the entire cast as they, clearly drenched and getting wetter by the minute, rolled around on the floor space, dived from railings, rode food trolleys and much more.

The action is ably directed and there is no stone left unturned in the pursuit of comedy. Simon H West, in his 24th year as a part of the festival, ensures that there is no let up of side splitting humour; whether it’s the clever use of his stage crew (a moving crew), interactions with the audience (such as the policeman handing out flyers to look for Rachel who ‘looks a bit like Ringo Starr’ in her mugshot), musical interludes which had me cackling and the sheer pace and delivery of the script, Simon has clearly ensured that every opportunity is utilised.

The cast are all brilliant in their roles and the casting is spot on. They’re clearly having an absolute ball performing this script, and the camaraderie and trust they have in one another is clear to see. The comedic chops are strong throughout, but particular mention must be made of the Harlequin himself, Francis Henshall, played by Matthew Preece. His physicality and timing are both excellent, as is his ability to ad lib and create new humour out of audience interactions. I must admit that, when Francis asked for a sandwich (a cry usually left unanswered) and somebody offered one, only for it to turn out to be hummus, I thought the audience would die laughing at Matthew’s lightning-fast responses and ability to turn the unexpected addition to his advantage.

The cast features fantastic performances from Bethan Maddocks as Rachel Crabbe who also had a beautiful singing voice, Joshua Ogle as the hilarious Stanley Stubbers (aka Dustin Pubsign) and Gregory Owens as Harry Dangle, the ‘no win, same fee’ lawyer. Brogan Rogers is Pauline who, cracked me up every time she proclaimed loudly, ‘I don’t understand!’ She is joined by Tom Price as Alan (Orlando) Dangle who played the ham to perfection, Toby Harris as hard-nosed but ultimately soft-hearted Charlie Clench and Jess Courtney as the ultimate feminist bookkeeper and love interest of Francis. Her proclamation about us one day having a female prime minister who would show compassion and love for the people certainly got some laughs! Completing the cast is Devante Fleming as Lloyd Boateng whose side glances at the audience as he mentioned ‘Parkhurst’ had us giggling away. The ensemble is also excellent, but Joan Hoctor as Elsie made my night. She had the whole audience spluttering with laughter and she stole every scene she was in, even if she just walked (slowly) across the stage pulling her shopping troller behind her.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed the new interpretation of this very funny play. The cast should be highly commended for their very well executed performances, even as the rain poured down around them. It proves that farce is still alive and well, whether it’s performed in the 18th or the 21st century! In these often doom and gloom times, it’s so lovely to leave a show with a huge smile on my face, that even the torrential downpour could not wash away.

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