THE smash-hit comedy sensation One Man, Two Guvnors is at the Aylesbury Waterside Theatre in Aylesbury this week – and you would be well advised to drop everything and immediately try to nab some tickets for this fantastically enjoyable play.
It’s Brighton, 1963, and the dim daughter of small time criminal Charlie Clench has announced her intention to tie the knot with an unbearably flamboyant would-be actor – sorry, ac-torrr. All well and good until Roscoe Crabbe, the gangster she had previously been promised to arrives on the doorstep, having apparently made a full recovery from what was thought to be a fatal stab wound a week before.
It’s not him, of course, but actually his twin sister, Rachel, who is merely working a scam to get some money from Charlie, and who has brought her servant - struggling skiffle musician Francis Henshall - to help her.
But then, a chance encounter with young police-dodging toff Stanley Stubbers – the man who it turns out did actually kill Roscoe Crabbe and is madly in love with his twin sister, Rachel (keeping up?) – leads Henshall, desperate for cash, to find himself in the employ of two masters.
Soon Henshall is embroiled in a madcap struggle to keep both his guvnors happy, all the time keeping their existence secret from one another as events descend into a wild whirlwind comedy of errors, farcical misunderstandings and good old-fashioned slapstick.
If this all sounds absurdly convoluted, that’s because it is – and this is only the first fifteen minutes or so of Richard Bean’s overwhelmingly entertaining play.
One Man, Two Guvnors is a brilliant piece of comic writing, boasting a clutch of superb performances. It moves with the frantic speed of a Loony Tunes cartoon and is steeped in the finest examples of classic British comedy – the spectre of Fawlty Towers looms large, particularly in one sequence that sees Henshall serve two dinners to his masters simultaneously, complete with the assistance of Alfie, an aged and hapless comedy waiter who is deaf, doddery and has a pacemaker with comedy-friendly adjustable settings. He’s not quite Manuel, but he isn’t far off.
Old fashioned does not mean twee or dated, though. While the play tips its hat to the seaside humour of the Carry On films and that whole era and style of comedy, it also has a knowing, modern sheen to it, with a smart and truly sparkling sense of fun.
The performances are uniformly excellent – sometimes broad and bawdy but always very witty. Holding the whole thing together is the tremendous Gavin Spokes as Henshall, who masterfully blends verbal and physical comedy. He is a hurricane of frenzied activity, full of energy and boasting perfectly polished comic timing. A moment of audience participation at Monday night’s performance saw him thinking quickly on his feet to wring a few unexpected laughs from proceedings.
It is hard to pick out other stand-outs, though, because the whole ensemble makes such a strong impression. Shaun Williamson (Yep, Barry from EastEnders) is on fine form a crook who just can’t get his head round the concept of identical twins, Emma Barton (er, Honey from EastEnders) is bold and brassy as Dolly, the object of Francis’ affections, while Patrick Warner is delightfully dopey as Stanley Stubbers. Edward Hancock, too, is great fun as Alan Dangle, the ridiculously pretentious amateur actor getting himself all in a tizzy in the name of love .
Again, though, there are no weak links to speak of and the entire cast is clearly having a whale of a time with this material.
The theatre was packed out for this terrific show, and the audience was frequently in hysterics. Comedies are hard things to pull off well these days, with so many different kinds of humour and tastes meaning that it is rare to get an old-fashioned crowd-pleaser like this that seems to have something for everyone.
This fast-moving show, however, is a perfectly pitched masterclass in targeting the funny-bone, with such an infectious sense of fun – the cast seem to be having just as good a time as the audience – that it is hard to imagine anyone not getting swept away by it. I, for one, can’t remember the last time I had such a fun trip to the theatre.
One Man, Two Guvnors is at Aylesbury Waterside Theatre until August 16 at 7.30pm with Thursday and Saturday matinees at 2.30pm. Tickets are £11.90 to £37.90, with a £2.85 booking fee from 0844 8717627 or go to www.atgtickets.com/aylesbury.
It is also on at The Wycombe Swan from December 1 to 6 at 7.30pm with Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2.30pm. Tickets are £19 to £30.50, with a £1.50 booking fee from 01494 512000 or go to www.wycombeswan.co.uk.