Fort Worth — I have to be careful what I say here, to quote a signature line from Francis Henshall (Matthew Gray), chief mover and shaker of the zany comedy One Man, Two Guvnors, opening Circle Theatre’s 2020 season.
If I tell you Circle’s production of this brilliant British farce is uproariously funny 66 2/3 percent of the time, you’ll think it’s a smackdown. And it’s not.
In the world of farce, getting things hilariously right for 40 seconds out of every minute is a big, big win. As for the other 20 seconds? Just wait for it, you greedy gits. More great comedy is always moments away, and in the meantime, feel free to stare at the bottom of your choice, on dishy bookkeeper Dolly (Lauren Leblanc) or “dangerous” actor Alan (Parker Gray). It’s 1963, it’s Brits in Brighton (the U.K’s party town), and the jokes aren’t a bit PC. Go with it, and you’ll have a great time.
One Man, Two Guvnors, of course, is the 2011 play by Richard Bean (a massive hit in both London and New York) that gave James “Carpool Karaoke” Corden a Tony and a TV show, and began a buzz about the centuries-old theater style called commedia dell’arte. (The play is based on Goldoni’s 18th-century The Servant of Two Masters.) As a kickoff for Circle’s 39th season, One Man, Two Guvnors is a gutsy, fun choice, and couldn’t come at a better moment. In response to the eternal question “Why this play, why now?” director Joel Ferrell’s notes say he pondered this “politically charged, highly stressful, emotionally draining time” in the country’s history, and concluded: “My Lord, do I need a good laugh….”
One Man, Two Guvnors delivers, hitting 2020’s crazytown zeitgeist right in the funny bone.
Artistic director Matthew Gray makes his Circle Theatre acting debut in One Man, tackling one of the most demanding comic roles written in the past quarter-century. Comedy is hard, physical comedy harder, and physical comedy with a side of improv…well, Gray should be proper chuffed that he brings it off so splendidly.
Gray’s sweet-natured, never-say-die Francis has us at hello, chatting us up in a working-class accent, shuffling about in a shabby tweed suit made for somebody else. Francis pretends he’s a tough guy, catching tossed peanuts in his mouth as if he weren’t surrounded by big bruisers and shady characters. But Francis is “skint” — a fired skiffle-band musician now stony broke and desperate for work, any work that will feed his need to eat…and eat…and eat.
Now, pay attention. Here’s how it starts:
- Desperate Francis is hired as a “minder” by sketchy gay ex-con Roscoe Crabbe.
- But wait, that can’t be right.
- Roscoe’s been dead for days, accidentally stabbed (three times!) by his sister’s posh fiancé Stanley Stubbers (John-Michael Marrs).
- Roscoe’s twin sister Rachel (Jenna Anderson), who still loves stabber Stanley, dresses as her brother, hires Francis, and runs from the police, who have sooo many questions.
- Not-dead Roscoe/Rachel turns up to surprise fiancée Pauline (Nicole Renee Johnson) and collect a big debt from Charlie, her dad (John Davis). Neither are glad to see him.
- Pauline never wanted a sham marriage. She loves wannabe actor Alan (Parker Gray), the scene-chewing son of her father’s lawyer, Harry Dangle (Ben Phillips).
- Lloyd (Lee George), another ex-con (he liked prison and hated Roscoe), is happy to find Rachel in disguise; Lloyd loves her as a daughter.
- Lloyd lets Rachel and Francis hide at his pub…a pub that “does food.”
- Francis, starving at the pub, waiting for his first wages in a while, meets upper-crust Stanley, who needs a helper and will pay every day.
- Francis is now one man with two “guvnors” — the British term for “boss” or “master.”
- What will happen next? Well, there’s an ancient waiter named Alfie….
Got it? No worries; in 15 minutes you’ll know all the characters.
The first act of One Man is about Francis and food. He can’t stop, can’t rest, can’t think until he eats. By Act Two he’s had a meal, and can concentrate on women, Dolly in particular. That’s commedia all over: funny stories for working people, barely-making-it people, not high-toned tragedies about kings and such. It’s comedy about food, sleep, and sex, about young and old, about sick and well, smart and dumb—a clown-car version of our real lives that makes things feel better, funnier, even if they’re not.
The cast of nine is all-in and high-energy, racing around with Kaitlin Hatton’s plethora of props until Bob Lavallee’s proper English set is ready for action, sometimes in Pauline and Charlie’s flat, sometimes outside (or in) the pub. Scene changes (Aaron Johansen’s deft lighting tells us just where we are) begin with this chaos of rushing characters, all talking at once until a blackout brings a swish of sound — traffic passing, seagulls calling. (Brian McDonald’s sound design also includes some well-timed comic punctuation points.) Lavallee’s set for the flat is layered, “mod” touches mixing with vintage, as would happen in a family home with some history. On Circle’s ubiquitous corner pillars, newspapers advertise early-‘60s skiffle band and rock programs, with The Beatles’ name catching the eye. (Francis, he tells us, gave some good advice to “that John Lennon.”)
Nationally known Murrell Horton creates costumes (with design assistant Barbara Proska) that are a period panorama, especially for the women onstage. Dolly wears a smashing pencil skirt and sweater, and Pauline a wide-skirted floral with matchy cardigan and heels. Some of the men’s suits have a bit of Guys and Dolls in their fabric choices — and are surprisingly diverse in cut and style.
All the actors have fun with Bean’s vibrant, slangy dialogue. The cast’s consistent, clear, and varied British accents (reflecting social status and locale) are a credit to dialect coach Emily Gray.
Matthew Gray’s Francis, a worthy successor to little-guy characters from the Roman comedies on down, is the epicenter of fun as he tells us his troubles and looks for help (and sandwiches) from the audience. Pouring left-behind pub drinks into a single pint glass (then drinking it down), Francis makes you laugh and cry — and remember Chaplin sadly eating the sole of his shoe for dinner.
But the cast gives him some tough competition. Leblanc’s Dolly, a flirty feminist in search of an era, is hysterically blunt about men, and Johnson’s weeping Pauline utterly clueless, about men and much more. Jenna Anderson rich voice and forceful style convince us she’d fool them all as Roscoe, and give lovelorn Rachel a big presence too. Marrs is the perfect upper-crust twit, and David and Phillips amusing as mob-adjacent types sure they’re badder than they are. Lee’s pub owner Lloyd might really be the wise guy of the bunch, but we’d never know: he distracts us with a wink, a smile, and a happy memory of the good old days in prison.
But it’s Parker Gray, bogarting not one but two side-splitting roles, who almost runs away with the show. He is Alan the actor (well, sort of), tarted up in Brando’s Wild Bunch leather, giving Pauline his heart as an invisible bird set free from his hands. “Is it a real bird?” asks Pauline, looking around. “No. It’s a metaphor,” says Dolly. (Her eye roll is invisible, too.)
And Gray (Parker, not Matthew) doubles the fun as Alfie, the hoary waiter (it’s his first day!) helping Francis serve a pub lunch to the two guvnors, the trick being to keep them from crossing paths and comparing notes. Gray’s Alfie totters onstage, impossibly bent, shaking and silver-haired — and then gets the toughest workout of the night. Missing from this production is the long staircase that was Alfie’s playground in the original, but even without it this old man reels, twirls, dodges, flies offstage —and takes a pratfall with the best of them. Alfie ought to be an ex-parrot by the end of Act One, but no, he’s a “carry on” sort of guy. Watching the old dude try to open a wine bottle…priceless.
Director Ferrell, hanging onto this crazy roller coaster with strong hands, was right about his original notion: we need a good laugh, and One Man, Two Guvnors is just the ticket. With a script this bright and a cast this talented, it’s a pleasure to walk out with slightly sore ribs and a smile you can’t quite wipe away.
Just don’t turn on the news.