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Interview: One Man, Two Guvnors at Newcastle Theatre Royal

Having a Laugh in Brighton

Jasmyn Banks, Edward Hancock,  Gavin Spokes, Derek Elroy, Shaun Williamson Photo: Johan  Persson

What Have Sting, Nicholas Parsons, Steve Martin, Bernard Cribbins and Rachel Weisz got in common? They have all been to see the comedy One Man, Two Guvnors.

National Theatre’s production of One Man, Two Guvnors, which first opened in 2011, returns  to the Theatre Royal next week. Richard Bean, who adapted One Man, Two Guvnors, talks about the origins of the show later, but first, Nicholas Hytner, Director of the National Theatre talks about his staging of the show.

 "In 2011, we had a very grim repertoire -  it was serious with no laughs.   This seemed like a bad idea, particularly during the summer months.

‘It’s always been the National Theatre’s aspiration, and certainly mine, to have a repertoire that covers the whole spectrum of what the theatre can offer and something purely entertaining seemed like a necessity.   None of my colleagues were up for looking for something purely entertaining and comic and I rather enjoy doing that kind of thing so I volunteered myself for that slot.

‘I remembered an old play called The Servant of Two Masters by the Italian commedia dell’ arte playwright Carlo Goldoni.   The reason I knew the play so well was that I played Truffaldino  (the character who eventually turned into Francis Henshall)  at school.  I was very bad.  I can remember being required to somersault because the director of the school production wanted it done in classic commedia style.  He was determined that the harlequin should be acrobatic and I was a very fat, clumsy child and teenager and absolutely couldn’t cartwheel or somersault.  I nevertheless had to, and these elaborate arthritic somersaults were part of a performance which had its moments but was essentially not very good and not very funny.

‘So I read the play again and thought it had funny bones but was not in any of the faithful translations funny enough.  I also thought that the way to bring it alive was to get James Corden to play the central role.   James had been in The History Boys at the National and in Gavin and Stacey, but had fallen out of favour and was lost in TV quiz show land.  James agreed to be in it and I asked the playwright Richard Bean to make a version because I knew that one thing that would not interest me was a production in the old eighteenth century Italian commedia dell’arte style.
‘I had this hunch that the traditions of low Italian comedy were essentially the same traditions of low English comedy.  I think that probably pratfalls and low physical comedy about the traditional comic subjects of greed, money and sex are global.  They spring spontaneously from what the human race finds funny.  There is no tradition, particularly no low tradition, which doesn’t find lust, drunkenness and  greed funny.

‘So I asked Richard Bean to transfer it from eighteenth century Venice to post-war Brighton.  I reckoned Brighton and Venice, as far as this play was concerned, were interchangeable.   A lot of the Italian comedies take place in Venice which was a very louche city – a city you went to for a dirty weekend.  It has been a party city longer than any other European city.  It ceased to be an influential and significant centre for European trade in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and became a tourist or carnival city.  
Emma Barton (Dolly) Gavin Spokes (Francis Henshall) Photo: Johan  Persson
‘In The Servant of Two Masters, the protagonists escape from Turin, the big city, and hole up in Venice where inevitably funny and complicated things happen to them.  Brighton’s relationship to London is much the same.   It’s a place with lots of hotels, far enough away from London that you might easily disappear into it if you are on the run from the law.   It’s a place with seedy picture comic post-cards.  Brightonfelt right, as did various English comic traditions like variety, end-of the pier farce, Ealing comedy and Carry On films.   They all felt like they were coming from the same place.  So I floated all these ideas to Richard Bean.  I’m not quite sure if we were talking 1940s Brighton, 50s Brighton or 60s Brighton.  He eventually alighted upon the early 60s Brighton – around the time that sex was invented, according to the Philip Larkin poem.   1963 was the year  he suggested – between the Lady Chatterley trial and the first Beatles LP.

‘And right from the first draft it felt like it would work brilliantly.  We had various readings.  The first reading was quite sketchy, but lots of ideas from the very first reading ended up in the play.  They came from a group of very funny actors sitting around a table reading and discussing the text and working out what to do with an ancient waiter (Alfie) who behaves like a rubber ball.   Alfie was there in Richard’s first draft, and everything else that happens in the play’s climactic first act where Frances has to serve dinner to both his masters  emerged in that first workshop reading.  The other thing that emerged was that we needed someone to take care of the physical comedy and that was never going to be me.  It’s not my area of expertise.  I can’t even turn a somersault.  So I asked Cal McCrystal, who is a great master of physical comedy to come on board and  help come up with the great physical routines in the play.

‘I was also able to give the designer Mark Thompson a very clear brief – the style of the show was going to be out of variety, out of end of the pier comedy.  Even though the production was originally created around James Corden, there have now been several brilliant casts who have made the play their own – and I can’t wait to see Gavin Spokes and the new touring company.'

Richard Bean, who adapted One Man, Two Guvnors, talked about the origins of the show. Firstly, how did Richard get into writing?
‘I started writing very late in life.  I was born in Hull, studied psychology at Loughborough University and worked in industry as an occupational psychologist for fifteen years.  I had no particular interest in theatre.  Then at 35 I started doing stand-up comedy which was my first venture into writing.  For that kind of comedy everyone has to write their own material.  I lived with an actor for a while and that got me interested in theatre.  I was forty two when I wrote my first professionally produced play – it was produced by the National Theatre and the Royal Court.   Forty two was quite old for a first play.  I then came to the NT Studio for three month bursaries for a couple of years and found I could write plays quite quickly.  This was a great boost to me as I could become a full-time playwright.   I wrote my 2nd 3rd and 4th plays at the National Theatre. 

‘Toast was my first play in 1999, and it was 10 years later that I wrote One Man, Two Guvnors.  The first few plays I wrote tended to be ‘hairy bloke plays’ about men at work - trawler men and factory workers and that kind of thing.  That was an early phase if you like.  Then there was my second phase.  They are what I call my ‘ counter-intuitive plays’ .  Others have called them controversial plays.  
Gavin Spokes (Francis Henshall)
Photo: Johan  Persson
‘My stand-up background has always meant that I’ve relied on my comedy to keep the audience interested even if I’m dealing with serious subjects.  Other writers, without naming names, might use poetry or sensationalism.  But I’ve always tended to use comedy or the odd funny moment to keep people interested in the plot - even with serious plays like The Big Fellah about the IRA in New York. I’ve written about 15 plays but I’ve only tried to write 2 out and out comedies in all that time.
One is my own farce called In the Club about an MEP in Brussels, in the European Union and the second is One Man, Two Guvnors.   The stakes are so different when you write a farce.  A lot of my plays are incorrectly described as comedies in my opinion.   Just because they are funny, that doesn’t make it a comedy in my opinion.

‘Farce is incredibly difficult.  When I tried to write my first farce,  In the Club – I remember sitting in the corner of my study crying - a grown man sobbing – I’m not proud of it.  I just couldn’t make it work.   It’s so difficult to make a farce work.  Every time someone leaves there has to be clear motivation and every time someone comes in there has to be clear motivation and the doors are so important.  It’s unbelievably difficult plotting to do that kind of thing.  In the Club was moderately successful and so I gave myself five or six years off before I tried my next farce.  One Man, Two Guvnors wasn’t that difficult to do the plotting as it had already been done by Carlo Goldini.'

How did you adapt the play and why?
‘I adapted a version of Don Boucicault’s London Assurance for National Theatre director Nick Hytner  in 2010.  Nick described it as a juiced up old play and our version was a fabulous success.    When Nick was talking about adapting Carlo Goldini’s Eighteenth Century farce, The Servant of Two Masters, I got the gig.’  

Why did you set it in Brightonduring the 60s?
The credit for the  show should go to Nick Hytner.  It was his conception to do this old Italian Comedia Del Arte museum piece as a funky 1960s beat band comedy with music hall turns.  If the book works – I don’t mind taking the credit for that.   Skiffle was my idea – so I’ll take the credit for that.   I originally wanted to set the play during the second world war.  I was hung up by the food.  In the first half, the central character of Frances is driven by hunger.  No-one in the 60s was that hungry – you could always get a slice of bread and butter.    It was still food.  Whereas in the second world war, people were hungry, and it would have been a drive.  It could have been set in the blitz and it wouldn’t have been so good.  Well done Nick, you won that argument. I don’t think anyone in the audience thinks – it’s 1963 – how can anyone be that hungry?  We get away with it.'

Are you surprised by the play’s success?
Emma Barton (Dolly) Photo: Johan Persson
Well, I can’t honestly say I’m surprised.  I didn’t have any particular hopes for it anyway.  What has happened has been fabulous.  When you write a play and want to get it on, you don’t think – will it be still on and will it go to Broadway.  You think – will it survive the first or second night.  When we were in the rehearsal room Nick arranged two performances with audiences.  On the Thursday, we    invited about 80 children into the rehearsal room.   It was kind of alright, but not that good.  For some of Frances Henshall’s long surreal speeches, the kids didn’t get it at all.  We did quite a lot of cuts, and had another school coming in the next day.  We did those cuts and the show absolutely stormed it with those school kids.  It made us a lot more confident to go into technical rehearsals the next week.  
The first preview was such a knock out, despite technical problems in the first week.  We guessed it would be a hit. I’m looking forward to seeing this new version of One Man, Two Guvnors, and am particularly pleased that it is touring to so many cities around the UK and Ireland.'

The National Theatre’s award-winning comedy One Man, Two Guvnors returns to Newcastle Theatre Royal this summer with cast to include Gavin Spokes, Shaun Williamson, Jasmyn Banks and Emma Barton. Don’t miss this hilarious mix of satire, songs, slapstick and glittering one-liners, Mon 28 Jul – Sat 2 Aug!

Now seen by over 1 million people worldwide, this internationally-acclaimed smash-hit is hailed as ‘the funniest show on the planet’ by The Mail and a ‘comic classic’ by The Guardian.


One Man, Two Guvnors appears at Newcastle Theatre Royal from Monday 28 July – Saturday 2 August.

Tickets are available from £12 (a booking fee of 95p - £1.95 will apply to most tickets) and can be purchased from the Theatre Royal Box Office on 08448 11 21 21 or select your own seat and book online at

The Tour:

Bradford Alhambra           21 July – 26 July 2014         

Newcastle Theatre Royal            28 July – 2 August 2014    

Dartford Orchard Theatre          4 August – 9 August 2014           

The Waterside, Aylesbury            11 August – 16 August 2014       

Crawley Hawth      18 August – 23 August 2014       

Regent Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent           25 August – 30 August 2014

Liverpool Empire     1 September – 6 September 2014        

Theatre Royal, Bath          8 September – 20 September 2014      

Royal & Derngate, Northampton         22 September – 27 September 2014    

The Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury      29 September – 2 October 2014

Leicester Curve      6 October – 11 October 2014

His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen          13 October – 18 October 2014

Hall For Cornwall    20 October – 25 October 2014

Leeds, Grand Theatre      4 November – 8 November 2014

Grand Theatre, Belfast    10 November -17 November 2014     

Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin         17 November – 22 November 2014    

Norwich, Theatre Royal   24 November – 29 November 2014    

Swan Theatre, High Wycombe 1 December – 6 December 2014        

Brighton, Theatre Royal   16 December 20143 January 2015 

Salford, Lowry          12 January – 17 January 2014  

Sunderland Empire, Sunderland           19 January – 24 January 2015

Theatre Royal, Nottingham       26 January – 31 January 2015  

The Churchill Theatre, Bromley 2 February – 7 February 2015    

New Theatre, Cardiff        9 February – 14 February 2015

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh       16 February – 21 February 2015

New Theatre, Oxford        23 February– 28 February 2015

New Wimbledon Theatre            2 March – 7 March 2015

Grand Opera House, York          9 March – 14 March

Wolverhampton Grand Theatre          16 March – 21 March 2015

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