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one man two guvnors

One Man, Two Guvnors At The Shaw Festival

In 2012, One Man, Two Guvnors, Richard Bean’s anarchic adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s 1746 Servant of Two Masters, a British import, exploded on Broadway, took New York by storm, and made an international star of James Corden.

Now director Chris Abraham has done the seemingly impossible – recreate that magic and in some cases exceed it – with his hysterically funny revival at Shaw’s Festival Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Goldoni encouraged producers to adapt his plays to suit local audiences and Bean did that in spades, transferring the action to the seedy side of Brighton, England, in the year 1963. Abraham has followed Bean’s lead with some interpolations of his own, including a number of insulting references to Canada which the local crowd greets with uproarious laughter.

I saw the Broadway original, so in the interest of recycling let me crib from my earlier review:

One Man, Two Guvnors tells the convoluted tale of Francis Henshall, a simple and impecunious young man whose world revolves around two goals, his next meal and his next sexual encounter. He finds himself in the tacky seaside resort town of Brighton working as a sort of butler cum gofer for a petty crook on the lam who is about to enter into an arranged marriage with an airhead who is madly in love with an aspiring actor. Almost by accident, Francis accepts a second similar job with a smooth toff who’s just breezed into town. Being several tuppence short of a shilling, Francis finds keeping the two jobs straight impossible

That would seem enough to cause plenty of comic confusion but the crook turns out to be not the crook, but the crook’s twin sister in disguise and the upper class swell is that sister’s secret love, not to mention the murderer of her brother. Got it?

While he has provided plenty of opportunity for acrobatic insanity, playwright Bean has not overlooked the power of the spoken word to reduce an audience to gales of laughter. He is a master of the surreal simile (“She is pure, innocent, unsoiled by education, like a new bucket”) and the obscene aphorism (“Love passes through a marriage faster than sh*t through a small dog”).

Director Abraham has also wisely avoided any temptation to reinvent the wheel. Why mess with success? Indeed much of this production looked familiar to me including the just-right sets and costumes by Julie Fox.

As Francis, Peter Fernandes gets the lead role of his dreams and he makes the most of it. He matched my memory of Corden’s brilliant performance joke by joke, pratfall by pratfall. I wouldn’t be surprised to turn on the television one day and see him hosting “The Late Late Show.”

Fernandes is first among equals in this company and there are many terrific performances. As Pauline Clench, Jade Repeta is the perfect dumb blonde and André Morin does well as her vain wannabe actor love.

Martin Happer is wonderfully suave and dapper as Stanley Stubbers the murderer on the lam who checks into the Cricketers Arms pub as Dustin Pubsign. And Tom Rooney, who was a delight in My Fair Lady, scores in the minor part of crime boss Charlie Clench, deploying an accent that would set ’enry ’iggins’ teeth on edge.

One of the great joys of One Man, Two Guvnors is the part of Alfie, a character not in Goldoni’s original. Alfie is a doddering, pacemaker wearing, eightysomething-year-old waiter in the upstairs dining room of the Cricketers Arms. He is played here quite brilliantly by Matt Alfano. Alfano’s previous work has been in musical theatre, mostly in small parts and ensemble work at the Stratford Festival and elsewhere. In Alfie he has a showy role worthy of his considerable talents.

When he’s not taking a header down a flight of stairs, the role calls for Alfano to be knocked senseless by opening doors, slammed into walls, smashed in the face by a cricket bat, and turned into a manic flibbertigibbet when his pacemaker gets turned up to nine. His performance is a tour de force of physical comedy and worth the price of admission.

One of the nicest conceits of One Man, Two Guvnors is the use of a skiffle band to provide entertainment before the first and second act curtains and to cover scene changes. Skiffle was a short-lived musical style built on American influences that flourished in England in the fifties before the Beatles changed everything at about the time One Man, Two Guvnors is set.

The band impressed me greatly, especially when I realized that all its members also play parts in the show. They included Jade Repeta as lead singer, as well as Martin Happer, Patrick Galligan, Graeme Somerville, Lawrence Libor, and Matt Alfano as a drumming, tap dancing Ringo Starr lookalike. How they managed to switch in and out of costume and be pretty much unrecognizable in their skiffle personas is a mystery to me; I’m in awe.

I saw the last preview of One Man, Two Guvnors and the house was packed. The word is clearly out and the show will be giving My Fair Lady a run for its money as the megahit of Shaw’s 2024 season.

One Man, Two Guvnors runs through October 13 at the Festival Theatre. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the Shaw Festival website.

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[Image: Shaw Festival]

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