One Man Two Guvnors at West Walls Theatre
Written by Richard Bean
Directed by Lexie Ward
To my left sits a gaggle of octogenarians seemingly rendered utterly dumbstruck and capable only of muttering the same non-committal slightly reworded comment back and forth; 'It's very modern, isn't it?'.
Somewhere behind me exists a woman who surely must possess the lung capacity of a blue whale, pausing not once during her hysterical laughter which has continued without cessation for some 15 minutes.
To my right there's a face frozen in shock, though if I listen I can hear the cogs frantically whirring as the brain struggles to catch up with the recent frantic assault on the senses it has recently endured.
Surrounding this tableaux appears an ocean of beaming faces, though I'm certain our little scene is repeated in some variation in other pockets around the theatre.
And this was just the close of Act One.
It's fair to say that One Man Two Guvnors was perhaps not quite what everyone was expecting.
Based on the old Italian classic 'A Servant of Two Masters', writer Richard Bean translates the action to 1960's Brighton in which our 'man' Francis Henshall (Pauley Heron), a failed skiffle player, finds himself working for two 'guvnors'. One, Rachel Crabbe (Sarah Coyle), is disguised as her dead gangster brother Roscoe and the other, Stanley Stubbers (Ben Bason) actually killed the brother and is also Rachel's lover. In classic farce style Francis must keep one from ever learning about the other in order to protect his dual position whilst never knowing that both are in reality simply trying to find each other.
Confused yet? That's just the tip of the iceberg.
Roscoe was engaged to dodgy scrap dealer Charlie Clench's (Stewart Grant) daughter Pauline (Emma Norgate), who has now instead become engaged to aspiring actor Alan Dangle (Michael Spencer), but Rachel (as Roscoe) intends for the original marriage to go ahead in order that she receives money from Charlie which will allow her to escape to Australia with Stanley to avoid him going to prison for her brothers death.
Meanwhile in addition to keeping his two Guvnors apart, Francis must find the time to feed himself, leading to a traditional piece of high farce wherein he finds himself serving both bosses dinner in the same establishment, hindered by the two waiters Gareth (Seb Coombe) and Alfie (Joe Desborough). And once fed, Francis moves on to tackling the second of his desires - finding love, in this instance in the arms of Charlie's bookkeeping 'feminist' Dolly (Caroline Robertson).
And this is without mentioning former Parkhurst inhabitant and now chef Lloyd (James Spark), Solicitor and Alan's father Harry Dangle (Andy Wright), and Paddy - Francis' monozygotic Irish twin.
Some ninety-five percent of this plot is launched in the very first scene of the play which, even for a farce aficionado as myself, makes it extremely difficult to follow. Despite being so top heavy though, the core themes are solid enough that by the close of the first act the vast majority of the audience had picked up who meant what to who, and by the close of the show even the octogenarians to my left understood the Rachel/Roscoe Stanley triangle. (Love one, pretending to be one, killed one. In case you didn't follow).
James Cordon, the originator of the Francis Henshall role, leaves large shoes to fill both figuratively and literally for not only for those who were lucky enough to enjoy the original National Theatre/West End/Broadway run of the production, but also anyone who had likely even heard of the play. It launched him almost singlehandedly from British sitcom fodder to conquerer of America, gathering awards all the way.
Whilst it'd be optimistic of me in the extreme to suggest the same could happen to the Green Room's leading man Pauley Heron, there is no doubt in my mind that he absolutely deserves similar success.
In perhaps the most physically demanding role ever to appear on the West Walls stage, Heron throws himself around with wanton abandon, hurling himself over trunks, eating letters out of a desperate hunger and, most impressively of all, giving himself a thorough hiding during the plays famous 'I've got two jobs...' monologue. But even aside from the superb physicality, Heron brings a great deal of warmth and heart to the role. For all his double dealing and conniving, Francis is never less than a sympathetic character imbued with desires the audience can understand and share. In a production chock full of audience asides and forth wall breaking, Heron gets the bulk of the heavy lifting (again, both literally and figuratively), and he handles the interaction with a loveable charm and consummate ease. He imbues Francis with not only the sense of the clown, but also an everyman, at once full of a deep desperation yet a willingness to please. He's the cheeky bulldog who begs for food, humps your leg, falls over playing fetch and pees on the carpet, but when he looks at you with his big sad eyes and eager wagging tail, you can't help but love him. He's magnificent.
Francis aside, the production is very much an ensemble piece in which director Lexie Ward has impressively managed to gather a cast entirely devoid of weak links and crafted a production in which every character has a moment to shine.
Newcomer Ben Bason impresses as snooty toff Stanley, carrying a thoroughly convincing upper class swagger and delivering hilariously puerile lines 'Wrap his nuts in bacon and send him to the nurse.', 'I spent all my time in the radiation cupboard trying to make my penis glow.' 'Wineorama!' with absolute aplomb.
Sarah Coyle in stark contrast to her previous role as Blanche Du Bois appears to relish playing the 'tough guy' Roscoe, her every gesture and movement positively screaming 'I am a man!' in a manner so gloriously unsubtle that no one thinks to question it.
And, speaking of unsubtle, Michael Spencer's portrayal of 'actor' Alan is so beautifully hammy as to worry any watching vegetarians. Every gesture and head turn is an awkwardly deliberate performance in itself and every word so oddly over enunciated make watching a cringeworthy delight.
As his 'nice-but-dim' betrothed Pauline, Emma Norgate crafts a character so assuredly thick while sickeningly sweet as to be enduringly lovable. I wanted to give her a hug throughout.
Meanwhile audience favourite Caroline Robertson waits patiently until the second act to make her presence felt, delivering a confident, sexy Dollly, able to instigate a wave of laughter through a silly walk alone and with a Thatcher alluding speech that brought the house down.
If Francis is the most physically demanding role the Green Room has ever seen, then Alfie, exquisitely played by youngster Joe Desborough must surely be the second. As an eager octogenarian waiter, thick Irish accent, pacemaker and all, Desborough is a triumph of physicality and flair.
Veering from high farce via pure slapstick all the way through to practically pantomime, One Man will clearly not be everyone's cup of tea. Director Lexie Ward has created a production that is completely unapologetic in being larger than life and downright silly, exactly as it should be. The characters are all well crafted, wound up and let loose to do their thing.
The set design by Sarah Waters as will by now come as no surprise is exquisite. Seemingly taking its inspiration from the pages of a comic book, its stark black and white lines bolstered by simple vibrant colour make it appear the characters are literally leaping out of a page, mirroring the characterisations perfectly.
To avoid lengthy scene changes overdubbed by tedious music, the production utilises video vignettes telling the story of how Francis was fired from his Skiffle Band featuring members of the cast. While they add nothing to the plot these are clever and well crafted distractions and provide a welcome break from the pace of the action on stage.
While I suspect One Man may perhaps veer just a little too much toward the pantomime end of the spectrum for some tastes - Closing with a rhyming couplet song while the cast dance about on stage as a final closing declaration of intent - this in no way diminishes its success. It's a bold and ridiculous play served expertly by an equally bold and ridiculous production. It's a brave step into relatively uncharted waters for the Green Room club and judging by the mixed demographic surrounding me may just bring with it an entirely new audience to sit alongside the existing octogenarians.
As the closing song said; 'Tomorrow looks good from here..."