That noise you heard coming from South Granville last night? That was the collective laughter of the audience at the opening night of the Arts Club Theatre Company production of One Man, Two Guvnors.
An adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s 1743 comedy Servant of Two Masters, British playwright Richard Bean relocates the action from its original Venice to the seaside town of Brighton, England in 1963. Mistaken identities, murder, cross-dressing, double-crosses, and of course a love story (or two), are all found in a script that is as dense as its main character, the “One Man” of the title, played with wild abandon (and not a little sweat) by our city’s everyman funnyman, Andrew McNee.
McNee is seemingly destined to play the hapless Francis Henshall with a wonderful mix of physical comedy, improvisation and delicious comedic timing. He is assisted by a cast that is having obvious fun with the material. Whether it is Ryan Beil who, in a brilliant piece of casting by director David Mackay, takes the piss out of actors and acting, or Lauren Bowler who takes the ditzy blonde to new heights, this cast so wholly embraces Bean’s bizarre world that they find the reality alongside the silliness. And just wait until you see what Andrew Cownden can do in the physical comedy department, as he literally bounces off the walls in the first act’s final, and the show’s, funniest scene.
Given the show’s roots, there will no doubt be British equivalents, but for those of us on the other side of the pond, the parallels to some of our most iconic comedians are undeniable. Abbott and Costello, Lucille Ball, Tim Conway, Charlie Chaplin are all delightfully and lovingly conjured on the Stanley Theatre stage by a cast that not only pays homage to those before them but proves themselves to be as equally skilled. Throw in some improvisation, original songs, and even a xylophone, and you have a recipe for an evening of absolute silliness that is the proverbial gift that keeps on giving. There are so many surprises around the many corners of Bean’s book that it manages to keep the audience as slightly off-kilter as the action on stage. That it sometimes plays out like a vaudeville show is only icing on this rainbow confetti cake.
And then there is the breaking down of the fourth wall. Actually “breaking” is probably too soft a term. It is more like the utter obliteration of that safety net that usually separates the actor from the audience. In Bean’s script an actor not only can acknowledge or talk directly to the audience at the drop of a hat but in McNee’s role, he is even given leave to step beyond the footlights and into the house itself (McNee’s first foray beyond that wall includes a very funny pause at the top of the stairs). Audience participation is also on the menu, and like most of the world that Bean has created it plays out in some unexpected ways.
The Craze, the four-man skiffle band consisting of Mathew Baker, Anton Lipovetsky, Scott Perrie and Spencer Schoening, not only give us mini-concerts before the show and entr’acte but add to the vaudevillian feel of the night with live musical scene changes. They also play double-duty in some of the supporting roles.
And even while act two can’t quite deliver like the first, One Man, Two Guvnors is so full of surprises and talent that it makes it all but impossible to resist this blooming good time.
One Man, Two Guvnors by Richard Bean. Music and songs by Grand Olding. Directed by David Mackay. An Arts Club Theatre Company production. On stage at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage (2750 Granville St, Vancouver) through February 22. Visit http://artsclub.com for tickets and information.