One Man, Two Guvnors is not an easy play to describe. Based on an 18th-century Italian commedia dell’ arte piece and transported to 1960s Brighton, a down-on-his-luck musician, Francis Henshall, becomes separately employed by two men – one a gangster, the other an upper-class twit – who he must prevent from meeting. But it’s a lot more complicated than this, as co-directors and -producers Helen Denning and Ryan Footitt testify from their initial difficulty explaining the plot to the cast of the Sheffield University Theatre Company (SUTCo) production.
Still, despite the bizarre plot, Richard Bean’s play was an instant hit. The National Theatre production, featuring James Corden in the starring role, received widespread critical acclaim at its premiere in 2011. In his five star review for The Guardian, Michael Billington called it “one of the funniest productions in the National’s history.” The following year the show was nominated for seven Tony Awards, with Corden winning one for his performance.
Since then the show has gone on multiple UK tours, one of which Footitt went to see with Rufus Hound as lead. “It was the first show I saw that I ever wanted to be in – it was the first one that made me want to make people laugh,” he says.
Footitt first had the idea of doing a SUTCo version in 2017. “It’s a big thing with SUTCo that most plays are either new writing or well known pieces that are very drama heavy – hard-hitting, political or moving.
“We don’t have many chances to see people in comedy. I knew there were many actors in the society had not done a comedy recently and many of them didn’t have confidence in their comic ability.”
Given this, it raises the question: is choosing one of this decade’s funniest plays a gift for unseasoned comedy actors or an added pressure given the original production’s popularity?
“What makes it funny is if the actor has enough confidence in their role,” says Michael Saliba, who plays Stanley, the posh “guvenor”.
“You just have to believe that the jokes you are saying are funny. But obviously when you rehearse them again and again they stop being funny to yourself and the cast even, so it’s just coming to every show believing it’s funny.”
But the challenge goes beyond the confidence of the actors, as other revivals have shown. The original production had a famous air of spontaneity about it. A mixture of slap-stick, running gags and audience participation – touching on panto in moments – exhibiting exceptional comic timing. What is more, this style of comedy fitted James Corden – fresh from Gavin and Stacy – perfectly.
Recent versions have sometimes struggled to capture the escapist silliness of the original. For instance, last month’s Derby Theatre production, while receiving generally favourable reviews, received the ultimate put-down from The Guardian as “a jolly romp wearing borrowed clothes.”
Still, Footitt is well aware of the risk of reproduction – perhaps even more so having watched the recent National Theatre Live rebroadcast. “I spent ages reading all the reviews for the recent Derby production.
“I was looking at all the pictures and just thought ‘they’ve just missed the mark’ because what they’ve done is taken James Corden as a person and tried to duplicate it, rather than the character. So I think our Francis is a different interpretation to James Corden’s, so if people come knowing the original they might not appreciate Francis at first but they’ll soon come to fall in love with him in a different way.
“I feel like it’s just a case of remembering that in this [One Man, Two Guvnors], the characters age from twenty-odd up to eighty-seven and because we’re all students in our twenties it’s just a case of finding what works in those jokes. So we can’t necessarily play on age but we can play on make-up so it might be more farcical for some characters and for others we’re playing on different jokes.
“It’s just about finding what’s right for us as students to make it not necessarily a student show but one that’s better with the tools we have.”
Footitt’s decision to wait two years to put on the show has turned out to be ideal timing. In 2011, Telegraph critic Charles Spencer welcomed the original production as “absolute bliss” in the midst of the global financial crisis. Watching it he said “cares are forgotten and gnawing anxieties put aside as you surrender to great waves of healing laughter.” Perhaps today, with a postponed Brexit and a General Election looming, we are, as a nation, even more in need of One Man, Two Guvnors. SUTCo’s production promises at least some Sheffield theatre-goers this deserved escapism.
One Man, Two Guvnors is on at The Drama Studio from 30 October to 2 November.