I’m back. And this time I’m talking about “One Man, Two Gov’nors,” the show that was made famous by british comedian James Corden as the “one man” (aka Francis Henshall). I didn’t get to see Corden, but the actor who played Henshall, Owain Arthur, was nevertheless very talented and entertaining. The show is based on a commedia dell’arte story “Servant of Two Masters” by playwright Carlo Goldoni in 1743. Commedia dell’arte is an Italian comedic performance technique. It even mentioned commedia in the play itself which I found particularly enjoyable considering I learned about the practice in a theatre class last year (always very exciting to apply classwork to real life). What you need to know about it is it includes a lot of physical comedy (protagonist getting hurt, getting into stupid/silly situations of his own accord, etc.) This play has gotten extremely good reviews in the past, so I was expecting a very enjoyable outing at the theatre. What I felt when I left the theatre was not so much joy as it was mixed feelings…
To start with, before the play even began, there was a four man band that began to play this sort of country/pop song dated to the period (60s in England). There was an acoustic guitar, a base, and even a washboard which, although it was played with a lot of skill, was nevertheless puzzling to me. The song was never-ending and I found myself silently pleading for the show to begin. Much to my chagrin. The band was a fully-integrated part of the play. At every set change, various members of the band would come to the stage and sing some hokey song about trivial things that may have mildly related to the story but not really.. The washboard player was pretty impressive playing various instruments like the spoons, and the drums (his most mainstream instrument). I understand having entertainment during set changes and I think it was a nice change of pace. At some points the actors would sing onstage in character and that was actually entertaining. But the band’s songs fell flat and I found not real purpose for their continued presence. Perhaps I would have felt differently if their songs had related to the story more, or if they had had small supporting roles in the actual play, or even if they reacted to the characters while they had singing cameos.
Another interesting part of the play was the audience interaction. This interaction and the banter between Henshall and the audience was my favorite part of the play and the part that felt the most “fresh” and exciting. At one point Henshall pulled up two men to pull a suitcase across the stage. Henshall asked the men where they were from and one of them answered “Canada” which was hilarious considering not 5 minutes before there had been a joke about Canadians. I figured the boy was either being smart, or it was huge coincidence. Anyway, Henshall proceeded to interact with the men for a while, going so far as to whisk them back-stage and out of sight of other characters in the play. The men finally got back to their seats but their performances were far from done. A little later in the play Henshall asked the audience if anyone had a sandwich (presumably rhetorical), to which the older man (one not from Canada) shouted that he did indeed have one. This seemed to catch the actor off guard, but he went along with it and executed some very witty one-liners and jokes. The audience interaction here seemed very spontaneous and it gave life to the predictable comedy that the play had so far presented to the audience. Then came Christine. Poor Christine was just a 30ish woman in the front row who REALLY did not want to volunteer to go on the stage. Henshall literally had to drag her and force her to do everything he wanted which consisted of holding a food tray while he piled tons of food onto it. She was onstage for at least 10 minutes poor thing. He made her hide behind doors and on her hands and knees under a table (she was wearing a dress and kept trying to tug it down poor thing). Finally, after thinking he accidentally set fire to Christine’s dress, Henshall threw a bowl of water on her and “put her out” with fire extinguisher foam… It was at this point that I sincerely hoped that Christine was an actress. Even though it was later revealed that Christine was in on it (she bowed at curtain call), I think this part of the play was the most convincing and entertaining part of the play to me. All the other actors (save for Henshall), while staying true to the over-exaggeration and absurdity of Commedia, felt like bland and poor imitations of textbook Commedia to me. There were some funny parts with the crazy “Actor” boyfriend parading around thinking he was the next BIG STAR! But, other than that the characters blended together and didn’t have much of a presence.
“One Man” was not a bad play, it had a lot of entertaining quips. I fear the hype and the positive reviews of the play may have gotten my hopes up. This play reminded me of 39 Steps in its attempts to entertain through exaggerated comedy, but where 39 Steps was full of energy and faced-paced, comedy, “One Man” fell flat and felt 2-dimensional. Even the scenery was dull and nothing special. Boring flats painted in predictable colors, nothing surprising or different. This show was a predictable and “nice experience for a wednesday night, but for those looking to be shocked, dazzled, or intrigued, “One Man, Two Gov’nors” may not be for you.