One Man, Two Guvnors

Hero Bradley on a pantomime for people who think they don’t like pantomimes.

Luckily, there is still only one James Corden
James Corden (l), James Corden (r)

The National Theatre’s One Man, Two Guvnors begins its previews at the Adelphi Theatre tomorrow. Earlier this year when it opened at the National Theatre, there were quite a few reviews which mentioned a humus sandwich  being offered to James Corden by a member of the audience. Therefore when I finally saw the show the other week on tour and someone in the front row proffered up a sandwich to Corden, I knew full well that this was no surprise to anyone. Despite knowing all this however, my suspension of disbelief in that moment meant that I laughed just as hard as if I’d believed every word.This whole sandwich section was, by the way, played completely straight. There was no wink at the audience like we were in on the joke. We were expected to think that this was the first ever time that James Corden had encountered a humus sandwich during the run of the play, and I’d hazard a guess that the majority of the audience there that night would have been surprised to find out that the sandwich owner was a plant.

In the coming couple of months exactly the same trick will be played on audiences up and down the country as part of the UK’s annual tradition of Christmas pantomimes.
Wigs will “accidentally” fall off heads, comics will slip over, and principal girls will start corpsing in almost every single regional theatre in the country. Some of the techniques then that the One Man creative team of director Nicholas Hytner and associate director Cal McCrystal are using are nothing new, though perhaps in deploying them in the usually more straight-laced environs of the National’s Lyttelton Theatre they are bringing them to an entirely new audience.

Because, and you might find this as baffling as I do, there are people out there who think they don’t like pantomimes.
I can only imagine this is because they have never seen one. Or maybe they’ve never seen a good one. I have been going to see the annual pantomime at the Theatre Royal Norwich since I was merely a fetus in my mother’s uterus and I absolutely love them. I love the silliness of them, the irreverence, the ridiculous jokes and painful-looking slapstick. I enjoy discovering that a particular celebrity is as bad an actor as you thought they would be and I enjoy even more discovering that someone unexpected has rather a nice singing voice, as some bloke off Hollyoaks showed he did in Norwich last year.

Is it pantomime’s acknowledged low-browness that puts some people off? It’s true that the theatre will be full of families who never set foot there for the rest of the year. Maybe there will be a 3 year old next to you who never stops talking. Maybe some of the dance routines won’t be quite as polished as the ones you might see on X Factor on a Saturday night. I’m certain that the celebrity casting doesn’t help.

Ensuring no more Cordens
Biff! Pow!

If you’ve seen One Man, Two Guvnors, here are some other things about it which are exactly the same as, or similar to, pantomimes:

During the entire play, there are no real moments of actual peril or sadness. The possibility of violence exists and there’s the odd blow, but it’s all a bit Tom and Jerry. You never really think that anyone’s going to get hurt or that it won’t have a happy ending in the end.

At one point there’s a dig at a local rival town (when I saw One Man, Two Guvnors in Birmingham it was Sutton Coldfield, no doubt that changed depending on where they were.) During the Norwich panto there will probably be a joke or two at Ipswich’s expense, though sometimes they’ll mix it up & bring Beccles or North Walsham into the mix.

During the scene changes, various of the characters in the play come out and perform with a skiffle band in front of the curtains. This in fact must be a tradition that goes back to musical hall days when, without all the new machinery that theatres rely on now, set changing could take rather a long time.

Lastly, there is a bit of cross dressing – Jemima Rooper spends much of the play pretending to be a man. Here though One Man, Two Guvnors differs from the best pantomimes as we know that she knows she’s a woman really; top panto dames never admit to really being men.

There are some respects however, in which One Man, Two Guvnors is different to a pantomime:

There are no dancers, nor any chorus of little kids from the local dance school.
There’s not nearly enough glitter or mirrorball action.
You don’t get to join in a song.
It’s really very sweary and not that suitable for your average 3 year old.

Of course both pantomimes and One Man, Two Guvnors have their roots in Commedia dell’Arte so perhaps it’s no surprise that they are so similar. I glibly say that; I would never have realised One Man’s Commedia dell’Arte roots if Corden’s character hadn’t referenced them at the beginning of Act Two. I had to look up Commeida dell’Arte & Carlo Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters on which Richard Bean based One Man for research for this post.

He's behind y.. oh, never mind.
'It's all right, mate, we've got loads more humus back at mine.'

One thing I must make clear – One Man, Two Guvnors is a very, very good night out at the theatre. It manages to contain all its craziness and not lose the audience by being incredibly well constructed and performed. Corden delivered his humus line with a freshness that came over as entirely genuine – that’s an astonishing skill when you think about it. Like a good stand-up comic who’s able to tell a gag night after night, as if it’s a thing they’ve only just thought of, he keeps audiences thinking that the adlibs are just for them. I take my hat off to him, he gives a fantastic performance, as do the rest of the cast.

If you’ve seen One Man, Two Guvnors and enjoyed it, particularly the silliness, or the bits where they break down the fourth wall and talk about the play and get a bit meta, then why don’t you give a pantomime a go? It’s a proper bit of British tradition. Wimbledon have got Dame Edna Everage this year, and Berwick Kaler’s one at York Theatre Royal is always worth in watch. In Norwich we’re going to have Hayley Tamaddon from Emmerdale and some other bloke off Hollyoaks, and if there’s a bit where our dame Richard Gauntlett gets offered a humus sandwich I will laugh and laugh and laugh.

Hero Bradley, who likes to watch comics put up wallpaper badly.

2 thoughts on “One Man, Two Guvnors

  1. Bristol has the Hoff this year, which is actually a bit of a comedown. last year we had UK showbiz royalty Babs Windsor, and the year before that? Actual Hollywood royalty Mickey Rooney. Rooney, it has to be said, was not good. It wasn’t just that he’s 91, but also, Americans don’t really get panto.

    “He’s behind you” is the quintessence of dramatic irony, which is the engine that drives the drama in Sahakespeare’s best work.

  2. I saw my first Berwick Kaler last year and had been dreading it after everything I’d read about his pantos on the internet. It was wonderful. I had to leave after the first 2 and a half hours (there’s about 2 hours before the interval!) because my kids had had enough, but they’d just turned 2 and 4 years old, and actually the 2 year old was happy enough. I was gutted; I’d been so looking forward to the finale. This year, they’ve told me they won’t go and I am not confident enough to show up alone, a creepy kidless singleton.

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