I've always been fascinated by 1963, so imagine my delight at finding myself surrounded by a grey-haired National Theatre matinee audience stomping, clapping and shouting their appreciation at a bunch of musicians in shiny Italian suits with razor-sharp creases who seem to have stepped straight out of that magic period. Two guitars, a double bass, drums/washboard and a musical repertoire that straddles the faultline between Lonnie Donegan and the Beatles, between 1950s skiffle and the more bluesy early 1960s. For me, as Cliff Richard and Tommy Steele gave way to Lennon and Macartney, it was the end of childhood. Like most of the afternoon audience in the Lyttleton theatre, my memories of 1963 pop music are etched as strongly as the tracks on an EP record (remember those?). Ask me about the X Factor and I score 0 out of 10, but play two bars of an early Beatles tune and my remaining grey cells get up out of their seats and start to dance around.
All of which is a way of saying that the musical accompaniment to this production, composed by Grant Olding and played by him and 'The Craze' (pun intended, I think), would be worth the price of the ticket on its own, even if One Man, Two Guvnors wasn't the funniest thing the National have staged since their last revival of Michael Frayn's Noises Off. Richard Bean has reworked Carlo Goldoni's 18th century comedy A Servant to Two Masters, setting it in the fringes of the criminal underworld in Brighton in 1963. I recall a very funny RSC production of this play, adapted by the excellent Lee Hall back in the 1990s, some time before he wrote Billy Elliot. Tim Supple directed and Jason Watkins played Truffaldino, the servant caught between two employers. I remember bowls of spaghetti being served to patrons lucky enough to be sitting in the front row of the Young Vic, and I still have a copy of Hall's play, which he described as an attempt to reinstate Goldoni.
Bean's version is much more of a free adaptation; it's a hybrid farce, owing something to the Whitehall/Brian Rix/Ray Cooney tradition, a little to the Victorian world of Pinero in which food becomes a substitute for sex, and a surprising amount to Joe Orton's Loot and to the art of Christmas pantomime. Truffaldino is now Francis Henshall (James Corden), a minder to gangster's moll Rachel Crabbe, who is impersonating her dead brother, murdered by her lover Stanley Stubbers. Francis ends up working for both Rachel and Stanley simultaneously. In this adaptation, directed with sublime precision by Nicholas Hytner, the accent is on physical comedy and slapstick. Instead of the non-stop clockwork plotting of Feydeau, Bean creates a world of verbal anarchy where the action sometimes grinds to a halt and spirals into absurdity, drawing on the Goons and Spike Milligan. 'First names are for girls and Norwegians,' one character insists. There's a series of running gags about Australia and opera, a post-modern riff about a future woman prime minister, and some excellent sight gags.
The show revolves around Corden, who is terrific; his timing is impeccable, his physical dexterity enhanced by his bulky, Bunterish figure. Above all, his backchat with the audience when he appeals for a sandwich has a genuine air of spontaneity. When he appears for a brief moment in a fez, it's more than just a homage to Tommy Cooper. The panto element involves inviting members of the audience up on stage to take part in the business -- something that breaks down the invisible fourth wall. There's a scene involving Corden, two waiters, his two bosses and several platefuls of food at the end of Act One which made me laugh more than anything I've seen on stage since I saw Mark Rylance in Boeing-Boeing.
The rest of the cast are also pitch-perfect, as are the 1963 costumes and the old-fashioned flats recreating Brighton. Bean's play creaks a bit towards the end, but Hytner's direction more than makes up for any weaknesses. What I missed in the story was a sense of real danger and jeopardy for the central character to make him afraid of being found out. But it's riotously funny. I was heavily critical of this Bean's last play The Heretic, after liking England People Very Nice. As a satirist, he can be heavy-handed, but at his best he creates a demented sense of anarchy on stage. England People Very Nice had a wonderful scene of Orthodox Jews in late Victorian London being pelted with bacon sandwiches by Jewish revolutionaries, and that's the kind of off-the-wall comedy that Bean does best.