My fellow Frenchpeople’s obsession with Jerry Lewis notwithstanding, I’ve never been a big fan of slapstick humor: a little, in general, goes a very long way indeed. Imagine my surprise, then, when I found myself not just laughing out loud at the Cape Rep’s production of One Man, Two Guvnors, but with tears of mirth streaming down my face as well. I stopped taking notes. I stopped noticing anything but the stage and the story and my own aching sides.
That’s the sort of production it is: quick, clever as well as slapstick, and enormously engaging. We’re immediately transported to 1960s Britain, complete with a Buddy Holly-esque band (and the music is really excellent), clothing that makes us grateful that fashion has evolved, and a very young Queen Elizabeth in photographs on the wall.
Let’s start with plot basics: Francis Henshall, a failed skiffle player, finds himself working for a local gangster at the same time as he takes a job with a criminal in hiding; both bosses, as we would say on this side of the Pond, are linked together in a very tangled web of romantic aspirations, about-to-fail schemes, and family ties. One of the two employers, Rachel, is a woman disguised as her dead gangland twin: the other, Stanley, is an idiotic clotheshorse, who is both the twin’s killer and Rachel’s lover. Francis is hopeless at keeping the various associations linked to the correct employer, and his solution is to try and keep the two from ever meeting. His own ongoing hunger and willingness to go along with whatever situation presents itself move him into the stuff of farce.
I expect that much of the reason I found this slapstick enthralling is that it wasn’t limited to physical pratfalls: playwright Richard Bean made this show verbally funny as well, and his script is peppered with observations such as “first names are for girls and Norwegians,” and the ever-present threat of Australia as offering a “terrible outdoor life, sustained by barbecue, beer, and opera.”
Brighton is a brilliant setting: as the late Keith Waterhouse has written, “Brighton is a town that always looks as if it is helping police with their inquiries.” Here mobsters (cross-dressing or not), pathetically stupid women, self-obsessed failed actors and efficient bookkeepers are the order of the day. (Sorry, Zoe Lewis: by the time you arrived, Brighton had no doubt cleaned up its act!)
As is consistently the case with Cape Rep, every inch of the stage is used to great advantage. We move seamlessly (with the help of the band) from a parlor to a street to a questionable restaurant, even to a bridge for a dramatic suicide attempt, and all of it done without the audience noticing the transformation.
I’d take some time to single out the best actors, but I’d simply be listing the cast, because everyone was absolutely perfect in their roles. No one missed a line or a beat, the timing was spot-on, and their smoothness in working with and off each other superb.
A word of warning: sit in the front row at your own risk. Seton Brown, as Francis, is not only dealing with a complex set of verbal and physical requirements, he’s also ad-libbing at every performance as well. Enough said. Brown delivers some impressive physical feats (have you ever seen anyone jump over an ironing board before?), while Jonathan C. Whitney manages to deliberately and delightfully convey caricature onstage.
Over the top? You bet! But I’ll bet that you’ll come away from Cape Rep’s One Man, Two Guvnors wheezing with laughter.
One Man, Two Guvnors by Richard Bean, based on The Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldoni and directed by Fred Sullivan, Jr., plays at Cape Rep from June 19th to July 19th. (Photo credit: Bob Tucker/Focalpoint Studio)
Jeannette de Beauvoir is the host of Arts Week on WOMR, a contributing writer to Provincetown Magazine, and a novelist, editor, and marketing writer. More about her at linkedin.com/in/jeannettedebeauvoir