The Playhouse theatre is located three storeys below the pavement at the Arts Centre, but tonight it feels like another world. There must be 800 people sitting in the auditorium, looking down at the cast of One Man, Two Guvnors as they bring the first act to a climax. Onstage, Richard Bean’s hilariously satirical take on Goldini’s The Servant of Two Masters has reached fever pitch, and the crowd are in disbelief.
It wouldn’t be fair to spoil, but just before the crowd files slowly into the foyer for intermission and a glass of red wine, the show’s leading man, Owain Arthur, turns the mood on its head. There’s a genuine sense of collective bewilderment when the curtain closes – a mass of people asking each other the same question. It’s true: One Man, Two Guvnors cuts a little deeper than your average pots-and-pans slapstick comedy.
Since its world premier at London’s National Theatre in 2011, One Man, Two Guvnors has taken all before it on West End and Broadway, winning the Best New Play gong at the Critics’ Circle Award in 2011 and receiving seven Tony nominations a year later in 2012. Directed by Nicholas Hytner and written by Richard Bean, the show flaunts the kind of raw, fast paced dialogue that is synonymous with British comedy. It’s set in the 1960s and jam-packed with one-liners that could easily have come from the Fawlty Towers playbook.
Aside from the dialogue, it’s the play’s live band, The Craze, that steals the show. Comprising four young London music students, The Craze – in matching purple velvet suits – provides a diverse soundtrack of skiffle music (a cross between post-war pop, jazz and American bluegrass). They are the barometers in One Man, Two Guvnors, fanning the flames in the lulls and putting them out before the interval.
Speaking in the green room on the morning of the show, band mates Richie Hart, Philip Watson, Oliver Seymour-Marsh and Billy Stookes said the show was born as a response to the 2009 recession in London. “It was devised by Richard Bean and Nick Hytner, the artistic director at The National,” said Hart, the band’s bass player and musical director. “They’d had quite a few very heavy seasons at The National…there was lots of Shakespeare, and they needed some light entertainment and fun for people. From there they came up with the idea to do One Servant and Two Masters, but they decided they had to do something radical with it.” Two years on, after extended seasons in London and New York, One Man, Two Guvnors is into its final three weeks in Melbourne.
At 9.30pm the bell rings in the foyer and the crowd settles in after the interval, reluctant to again place their trust in the show’s main protagonist. Arthur – who plays the hero, Francis Henshall, starts at a modest pace, willing the audience back in and working the front row. He exudes a grace and subtlety that director Nicholas Hytner has drilled into the entire cast. It’s evident from the very first moment in act one.
Billy Stookes, The Craze’s 21-year-old drummer, said the quality of the performances in the show come down to their rigorous rehearsal schedule. “We spent a lot of time making sure we’re always on the mark,” he said. “And once we’d nailed that, we allowed ourselves to focus more on the performance and interact with each other on stage.”
One Man, Two Guvnors is in season at the Arts Centre Playhouse until June 29. For tickets click here.