This wasn’t supposed to happen. You know that sinking feeling you get? The curtain drops, and all of a sudden there’s maybe a dozen actors all talking at each other, over top one another, in rapid-fire succession. Uh-oh, I can’t keep up. And that bright, garish set, with a painting of the Queen looming larger than life! Okay, Google, none of this is making any sense. This can’t end well.
But it does. Very well.
When I entered the Roda theater for the opening night of One Man, Two Guvnors, the party had already started. The music: skiffle (courtesy The Craze). The place: swingin’ Brighton. Four gents were strumming up a storm, grooving to the beat. It’s very apropos. This is a show that grabs your attention, ceaselessly tickles and entertains you to death. Right until the very end. Comedy. British pantomime. Music-hall revue. Call it what you will, Richard Bean has crafted something special.
The story itself, concerning mistaken identity in glorious Shakespearean tradition, is almost inconsequential. Someone is dead. Someone else is a murderer. And two couples are caught up in the mayhem, simply in search of understanding and love. But what really matters are the outstanding set pieces — a series of scenes, some based on wordplay, some on brilliant comic timing, and almost all with outlandish physical routines that are pure gold.
Actor Don Donohue delivers a performance for the ages. As Francis Henshall, a hapless, lovable, and (very) hungry vagabond, he breaks the fourth wall, and enlists the audience to help him in his efforts to: (a) find food; (b) find a job; and (c) find love. Explaining his way to us over the course of the show, you soon realize there’s several layers in action here. Simply enjoy the folly at face value. Or, dig deeper, and ruminate over plot devices, character motivations, and simple-in-appearance yet complex-in-execution scenes.
Soon, Henshall (One Man) does find a job. Two of them, in fact. Keeping his bosses (Two Guvnors) unaware of the other becomes a central theme. In one scene, he must serve both lunch at a pub (Pubs that serve food? That’s going to be huge!). He seats them in opposite rooms. As dishes arrive from the kitchen a sort of food ballet ensues — how else to describe this, I’m not sure. Francis Henshall effortlessly orchestrates the proceedings. One moment plating, the next dashing from room to room, balancing soup, and lamb chops, with delightful, manic energy. That he resembles Conan O’Brien, or channels at times Robin Williams, or Martin Short’s Ed Grimley (SCTV/SNL), I’m not sure the reason, his performance works a treat. Reason enough to see this show, multiple times.
Surprises abound. We’re sworn not to write about them. And that’s a good thing.
Supporting cast is also top-notch.
William Connell as one of the love-torn Guvnors is gusto and wonderful. Brad Culver is Alan, an aspiring actor, delivering his lines with dramatic, over-the-top aplomb. BTW- where did he get that knife?! Ron Campbell has perfected the art of falling down stairs. Helen Sadler, as the other Guvnor, is a cheeky firebomb. And Danny Scheie delivers one of the best show intros in recent memory. If only he could enunciate…
As a child, I spent a year living and going to school in Brighton. Seeing the boardwalks, the piers, brought back many memories. As we’ve come to expect, Berkeley Rep’s sets are colorful, elegant, and, yet again, mind-blowing.
I like catchy expressions that I haven’t heard before. Here’s one of several memorable ones from this show:
“Well wrap his balls in bacon and send them to the nurse.”
Director David Ivers’ experience with improv, and slapstick (The Cocoanuts at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival) is evident. Timing, blocking are impeccable. Watch as the musical interludes and charming skiffle solos (bicycle horns, xylophone, various body parts) seamlessly flow.
— Clinton Stark (@clintonstark) May 16, 2015
Sometimes these mash-ups are a grab-bag of random things that are too disjointed and fall all over themselves. Often, more entertaining for the actors, than the audience. Not so with One Man, Two Guvnors. Surprises abound. We’re sworn not to write about them. And that’s a good thing. Try as I might to write about this production, I can only humbly fall to my knees in awe of the talent, and suggest you head on over to Berkeley as soon as you can. I hear it’s more agreeable than Australia.
UPDATE: I just read this on the Berkeley Rep Facebook page. On Sunday’s performance, actor William Connell proposed to his girlfriend Hanley on stage. So fun. Here’s the video:
Photos courtesy mellowpix.com