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Fringe Online 2020

Low Down

Richard Bean’s adaptation of Goldoni’s A Servant of two Masters is directed by Nicholas Hytner, Associate Director Cal McCrystal taking the physical comedy scenes. Music’s composed by Grant Olding, with a skiffle band The Craze consisting of Grant Olding (lead vocals, guitar, keys, accordion, harmonica), Philip James (guitar, banjo, backing vocals), Richard Coughlan (double bass, electric bass, backing vocals), Ben Brooker (percussion including washboard and spoons, drums, backing vocals). Mark Thompson’s Set and Costume Designer, and the set’s lit by Mark Henderson, Tim Blazdell Digital Artist and Sound Designer Paul Arditti. Fight director’s Kate Waters and Choreographer Adam Penford.

For the original broadcast Emma Keith’s Head of NT Live Robin Lough directs, Christopher C Bretnall is Technical Producer, Lighting Director Bernie Davis, Sound Conrad Fletcher, Laura Vine Script Supervisor, Priscilla Hoadley Vision Mixer, and Pail Freeman Camera Supervisor. Production manager Flo Buckeridge, Anke Lueddecke, Harry Guthrie, Jessica Richardson. Jim Cross is Content Delivery.


If ever Nick Hytner congratulated himself for devising NT Live, his production of Richard Bean’s adaptation of Goldoni’s 1737 The Servant of Two Masters must count as so many pats on the back he’d be wincing for two weeks. It’d be more like self-flagellation.

Recast – more snappily – as One Man, Two Guvnors, Bean’s transposition of the action to 1963’s gangster-rich Brighton is a stroke of comic genius only more apparent after nearly a decade when there’s been even less to laugh about. So it’s an obvious choice to re-screen for everyone free as the first of the NT At Home on YouTube.

The brilliance of Bean’s and the team’s production lies in its fourth-wall asides becoming a kind of post-modern commentary, and such jokes as Corden becoming in his serving two masters a divided – not to say confused – self who starts beating himself up. The dialogue’s some of the funniest writing seen at the National or anywhere else this past decade. The Beatles – who caused Francis’ dismissal – get a drumming too.

Still there’s skiffle music composed by Grant Olding, which he directs in a band he’s named The Craze in front of the curtains. We’re in 1963 Brighton, We start with the lovingly awful interior (complete with the Annigoni Queen) of Charlie the Duck’s home with its bay window. He’d previously ‘arranged’ his daffy daughter Pauline’s engagement to psycho gay gangster Roscoe Crabbe, who’s luckily just been killed. Anyway Claire Lams’ Pauline swoons for ‘acting’ amateur actor Daniel Rigby’s Alan Dangle. ‘She’s pure innocent unsoiled of education… like a bucket.’ When he declares his love-rival will meet his nemesis, someone asks if it’s a Citroen.

That’s Roscoe’s minder, aka out-of-step skiffle player Francis Henshall – James Corden – who’s brought ‘Roscoe’ back. Who seems to be claiming Pauline.

Francis allows himself to get separately employed by murderous hardman Roscoe (as he thinks), and Stanley Stubbers (Oliver Chris), an upper class ex-Guardsman you’d reject as dim for the Python Twit line-up. Still Stubbers can surprise you.

So Francis tries to keep the two from meeting each other. And his ill-met moonlighting. Now here’s a thing: Roscoe’s really his sister: Jemima Rooper’s Rachel Crabbe in disguise, Roscoe having been whacked by her boyfriend: who’s… Stanley Stubbers? Rachel’s amazingly forgiving. ‘He’s risen from the dead ‘as he?’ ‘Yeah, took him two days – only one day quicker than he previous record’ quips the oblivious Francis, who hasn’t worked it out. So we’ll get a woman engaged to a woman. Sounds familiar.

So add several letters, a groaningly heavy trunk (wait for voluntary audience participation), a near-nonagenarian waiter – Tom Edden’s outstanding Alfie – and Francis’ headlong pursuit of Suzie Toase’s Dolly (Charlie’s proto-feminist bookkeeper), and even more beloved, food and drink. Oh and be prepared for sandwich participation. And an unfortunate young lady called Christine. And a further few sets: Outside the Cricketers’ in Black Lion Street and in the upper rooms there; outside The Duck’s house, and the pier that isn’t burning.

Corden though clearly stays hungry for this performance and so many others. His comic gift never burns brighter than here, an extraordinary physical performance slicing lines from him as he twists from fourth wall through third and first person to two guvnors he can’t let see each other. From those traditional monologues servants give to an audience this production teeters on danger as you’re never certain when Corden will jump down and ask for another smack of outrageous participation.

Chris is superb too mixing hauteur with occasionally violent twittishness. With jokes about eleven-year-old boys and grandfathers who plot the Amritzar massacre, it’s not for the correct. Of inventing pub food: ‘Wrap his nuts in bacon and send him to the nurse!’

Rooper’s Rachel with her tough-tender delivery of her late brother, and sudden lunging passions is adroit and very funny as straight-acting tough and melting girl, with a wild line in sexual agility. We see less of Toase’s Dolly till the second half (the motivation for the second act Corden reminds us) and Toase carries a lot of the comedy. Toase’s monologue prophesying a woman prime minister who’ll – you’ll have to see it.

Even with Toase dialling up northern brass, there’s a possibility the second half could drag, and it’s a tribute to Bean he can script one-liners so Toase and Corden blaze verbal energy along with Rooper and Chris, unwittingly both Guvnors of the same man – whose desperate attempts to keep them apart start crumbling when trunks are confused and each recognizes the other’s items. Francis enters on a desperate ruse, which he uses twice. He has absolutely no idea it’ll end on a couple of lamp-posts.

Tom Edden’s outstanding Alfie steals the show though, as the 87-year-old waiter on his first day, with a variable-speed pacemaker. Less Faydeau on speed, this is more a white-haired punch-ball on acid. It’s the height of Cal McCrystal’s direction of the stunning physical comedy.

There’s terrific support too. Trevor Laird’s Calypso-loving Lloyd Boateng, an old Parkhurst friend of Harry is the only one who recognizes Rachel, offering to help. And is rather good on reconciliation. David Benson’s all ruffle ddignity as Head Waiter Gareth, Martyn Ellis is the lovelorn actor’s florid Latinising lawyer father Harry Dangle, and Fred Ridgeway’s Charlie Clench has all the wily old boss’s quips, with a nice line in keeping clan discipline, though none quite prepare for such gems as: ‘Love passes through marriage faster than shit through a small dog.’ And as for his prospective son-in-law: ’The Seagull? Why would I go to Rottingdean to see someone shoot a seagull when I live in Brighton?’ There’s much, much more of that.

Mark Thompson’s set is outstanding – he’s a fine period costume designer too. Amongst half a dozen scenes, he lovingly recreates a view of Clench’s interior, Black Lion Street in Brighton for those who know it, with The Cricketers’ pub the focus of action, and its upstairs the setting for the uproarious supper scene. It’s lit by Mark Henderson with all the tenebrous 60 watt charm of 1963 and Sound Designer Paul Arditti comes up with seagulls, gunshots and an amplification of Olding’s scuzzy skiffle score, leading a band.

The last part of One Man, Two Guvnors wraps everything with a neat cleaving to something near the original with Francis’ last speech. Bean and the cast set the energy high for an ensemble play-out. It’s the most uproariously precise fileting of physical and verbal action I’ve seen. Relentlessly funny, even when the action slows down to love interests, it even has a memorable final song ‘Tomorrow Looks Good From Here’. Outstanding. An immediate comic classic.