The comedy ‘One Man Two Guvnors’ has been a hit in London and on Broadway. Along the way, it even made its lead actor James Corden a star – and launched him into the host chair at ‘The Late Late Show’ on TV. Now the WaterTower Theatre’s presenting the comedy’s area premiere. Local All Things Considered host Justin Martin sat down with Art & Seek’s Jerome Weeks to talk about what, in fact, is a funny, very old play. Our extended conversation:
JWJustin, let me play you a little music. So who does this sound like? [plays an excerpt from ‘Give It Up Baby’]
JWRight. The Beatles. Or the Dave Clark Five. Maybe Herman’s Hermits.
It even makes me think of ‘Austin Powers.’ Y’know, ‘Grooovy, baby!’
JWExactly. Basically, it’s the swinging-London-in-the-early-‘60s feel. But the song is actually an imitation of that deceptively simple pop style. Five years ago, composer Grant Olding created a bunch of copycat tunes for the comedy ‘One Man, Two Guvnors’ when playwright Richard Bean developed the play at the National Theatre in London. The show even opens with a skiffle song — skiffle was what the early-early Beatles played, a kind of rhythmic folk-rock, easy for street musicians to perform. A big skiffle hit was ‘Rock Island Line’ — and just to show you how closely Olding echoes these things, ‘One Man’ even has a tune called ‘The Brighton Line’ — because the show is set in Brighton.
In any case, all the tunes didn’t make the comedy into a musical; they’re played by a live band on stage to add some of that lively spirit of the early British Invasion.
Rather than a musical, the play is actually an updated version of the old-old stage comedy, ‘The Servant of Two Masters’ — Il servitor di due padroni. It was written in 1746 by Carlo Goldoni, one of Italy’s most popular stage writers.
The Dave Clark Four? No, it’s ‘The Quid,’ the onstage band played by Ian Ferguson, Allan Pollard, Sara Bollinger and Alan Murphy. Photo: Karen Almond
I don’t have a lot of anything from 1746 in my library, so what’s it about?
JWIt’s kind of pointless to explain the plot. Ask me why in a minute. Anyway, a hired hand named Francis works for a gangster named Roscoe. Francis doesn’t know Roscoe was murdered because Roscoe’s twin sister has stepped in in disguise. She wants to get money her brother’s owed so she can marry the man she loves. Meanwhile, Francis isn’t getting paid and Francis is hungry, so he hires himself out to another criminal.
At any rate, Francis tries to keep these two bosses – his two guvnors – apart so he can get both paychecks but everyone ends up at the same restaurant.
That’s my cue?
Oh yes. Jerome, why is it pointless to explain the plot?
JWBecause the plot, as complicated and ridiculous as it gets, really isn’t that important. You don’t laugh at the plot. Carlo Goldoni, the author of the original play? He was working with the very old traditions of the commedia dell’ arte. That was a popular Italian street theater. It uses stock characters — the lecherous old man, the innocent young lover, the conniving servant — and it uses stock situations like sketch comedies. You know, “Oh, no, my wife’s here! Quick! Hide behind this very conveniently placed sofa!” You can find the commedia in everything from Shakespeare’s ‘The Comedy of Errors’ to Rowan & Martin’s ‘Laugh-In’ and a ton of American and British sitcoms.
Right. So when does the funny stuff happen?
JWI’m getting there. Another early name for the commedia happens to have been commedia all’ improviso. Improvisation. The actors simply use these old routines as excuses for their own political quips, bawdy puns, local references or physical slapstick. They often broke character and just joked directly to the audience. So in this scene, Francis is played by Brian Gonzales. He’s still hungry, but he’s putting the moves on the gangster’s sultry bookkeeper, played by Ashley Puckett Gonzales. Their wisecracking here is typical of the show’s dialogue, and so is Francis’ last line — which he addresses to the audience.
Brian Gonzales and Ashley Puckett Gonzales. Photo: Karen Almond
Francis: Friend of mine likes you. Dolly: What’s his name? Francis: Paddy Dolly: What’s he look like? Francis: He’s a good looking lad. He’s big boned. Dolly: How’d he get big bones? Francis: You know, the usual. Nature/nurture Dolly: Partly genetic, partly pies. Francis: He likes his food, yeah. Dolly: Does he prefer eating – or making love? Francis: [Pause.] That’s a tricky one, innit?
That’s real sharp. That sounds like something out of Monty Python.
JWIt is classic, isn’t it? The WaterTower Theatre production captures that whole spirit of effortless silliness and ‘60s pop style. It’s directed by Terry Martin, and he’s cast this very well. I especially liked Sonny Franks and John-Michael Marrs as the two guvnors and Jeff Colangelo as a feeble old waiter. All in all, it’s a lot of well-done fun.
Of course there’s an ‘except’ with you. Here it comes.
JWWell, when James Corden played Francis in London and on Broadway, he had a sweetness, an innocence to him. All of his schemes came from desperation. He wasn’t conniving to put something over on people, to swindle them. He really was starving, just a hungry bloke.
But I don’t get hunger or innocent desperation from Brian Gonzales. Gonzales is funny. But from the start, he’s more of a wise guy who knows he’s a wise guy. He’s not really after the food, he’s after the laughs. Corden said those lines above with a sense of dawning realization — food or sex, that is a tricky choice. Gonzales delivers it with a knowing wink at the audience: This’ll get a chuckle from you, I’m sure.
So you lose a little youthful exuberance and innocence. And those are the very reasons the whole show was set in the early ‘60s in the first place.
Jerome Weeks is the Senior Arts Reporter/Producer for KERA. Previously at The Dallas Morning News, he was the book columnist for 10 years and the drama critic for 10 years before that. His writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Salon, Los Angeles Times, Newsday, American Theatre and Men’s Vogue magazines. View more about Jerome Weeks.