One Man, Two Guvnors

Adelaide Festival

One Man, Two Guvnors

Her Majesty's Theatre


The English have always been very good at being silly.

One may dare to say they're the world experts with funny-bones honed by a long tradition of music halls and pantomime.

One Man, Two Guvnors , from the National Theatre of Great Britain, adorns the Adelaide Festival as belly-laughing proof. It is Brit shtick city - albeit with classical Italian roots.

The play, written by Richard Bean, reworks Carlo Goldoni's The Servant of Two Masters, a 1700s play which of its time was a modernisation of the 16th century commedia dell'arte tradition. One Man, Two Guvnors is set in 1963 Brighton, England, but fastidiously honours its period origins and the serious student of theatre can observe myriad threads, beginning with the comic servant in chequered suit suggestive of a Harlequin's diamond pattern duds.

Like vaudeville, commedia was entertainment for all comers - and so is One Man.  There is nothing complicated about it - unless it be working out which of the audience victims are plants and which are truly hapless locals. Audience interactions and improvisation loom large. On the first night, a guide dog barking perfectly to the cue of the comic lead's entrance was the show-stopper. Was he a plant, too?

It doesn't matter. Owain Arthur milks it for all it's worth and the audience is in stitches.

He plays Francis Henshall, the opportunistic servant to an underworld crook who is actually the crook's twin sister in disguise and also servant to an upper class twit who is her true love.  The plot is as silly as the characters and its climax is not so much the romantic resolution as a scene in which, with the two lovers unknowingly staying in the same hotel, a ravenously hungry Francis attempts to cater room service to both. He is "assisted" by Alfie, an octogenarian waiter who is brunt for an almost encyclopaedia array prat-falling, delayed response sight gags. Finely-tuned physical comedy is hallmark to the production which, directed by Nicholas Hytner, has finessed its physicality with a specialist physical comedy director in Cal McCrystal.

The absurdly convoluted narrative evolves in a scatter of zany scenes, some drawing room exchanges between the other characters, playing out their 1963 plans for an engagement party - the dumb blonde, the busty secretary, the gangster dad, the erudite associate - and a dire threat of having to move to Australia and endure "outdoor life and opera". That's us, folks.

The comic action opens with and is interspersed by lively musical performances which allow a bit of foot-tapping to rest the laugh-weary ribs. Skiffle band, The Craze, features a big dab of Lonnie Donegan, a touch of Buddy Holly and a breath of Beatles. When not on stage, the musicians, complete with washboard, are by the footlights. Just for Music Hall good measure, the cast members add a few corny musical turns of their own along the way.


There are wonderful performances all round. It's wildly stagey production and the ham comes with relish.


The seemingly inexhaustible Welsh comedian, Owain Arthur, rose from understudy to become the star of this show  and he is quite the drawcard - just too silly to be true, which, of course, he's not.



Samela Harris


When: 28 Feb to 9 Mar

Where: Her Majesty's Theatre