One unfortunate truth about theatre is that, unlike film and music, it rarely crosses the radar of those who don’t choose to seek it out. Even if you’re an avowed chart avoider, you’ve probably heard Happy and Fancy. If cinema does nothing for you, you’re still probably aware that Interstellar is currently filling seats across the country. Theatre, however, is a little different. It tends to secure itself within the confines of central London’s Theatreland district, and the (often-skipped) theatre review pages of newspapers.
Which is why One Man Two Guvnors was especially interesting when it captured the London zeitgeist over three years ago. Like a new restaurant, or a particular designer’s fashion show, a seat for it became to some a signifier of status and taste – and all for a slapstick comedy. Of course much of the credit for this can be laid at James Corden’s door for his performance of the lead role (which saw him take the show from London to Broadway), but as last Tuesday’s opening night performance at the Norwich Theatre Royal showed, the spirit and energy of the play lives on in the wake of his departure.
Corden left the role in 2012, with the position now in the hands of Gavin Spokes who thankfully, along with the rest of the company, gives an invested, entertaining performance. Praise must also go to Patrick Warner for his portrayal of self-proclaimed “boarding-school trained” Stanley Stubbers, “happy with a bed, a chair, and no-one pissing on my face”. Asinine remarks like these come as a continual joy, as the audience is gifted pearls of wisdom such as “first names are for girls and Norwegians”. It is also impossible to talk about the play’s characters without mentioning the audience, relied upon throughout the narrative for their participation, feigned or otherwise.
The problem with remakes is that they’re unfairly disadvantaged from the off. If the original version of something wasn’t a huge success, it’s unlikely it’ll be remade or extended, and therefore newer versions are almost always going up against the instant comparisons of an anticipatory audience. When the original version is a play that sold-out nightly both at the National Theatre and then in the West End, at a time when the theatre world was competing to stay relevant, the weight of expectation for a new cast must feel insurmountable. Having been lucky enough to see the original ensemble perform the play at the National Theatre, I’ll admit that I had to make sure I wasn’t being unfairly comparative while watching the performance.
A little like its original lead, One Man, Two Guvnors will always be lovable, despite its occasional shortcomings. For every scene that feels excessively slapstick, there’s one with such wit and energy that it more than counters any negative feelings towards the performance. Richard Bean’s play, with a little help from directors Nicholas Hytner and Adam Penford, celebrates comedy’s invaluable place in culture, and thus should be celebrated itself. I’ve also always been a sucker for an end-of-show full-cast musical number.