Not since the 2009 Sydney Festival presented Tamas Ascher’s Ivanov (with his Budapest-based ensemble company Katona József Theatre) has this city seen such a meticulously honed comedy. Though at least two locals works should be respected in this context. John Bell’s 2007 two-man version of The Government Inspector starring William Zappa and Darren Gilshenan, and Richard Cottrell’s 2009 production for the Sydney Theatre Company of Tom Stoppard’s Travesties with a stellar cast including Toby Schmitz, Jonathan Biggins, Blazey Best, Rebecca Massey, and again William Zappa.
ALL PHOTOS BY LISA TOMASETTI
One Man Two Guvnors is a bold (indeed brilliant) reworking by Richard Bean of the plot of Carlo Goldoni’s 1743 Commedia dell’Arte masterpiece, Servant of Two Masters. When I say reworking, I mean the elaborate comedy featuring pace, identity confusion, sight gags, witty double entendres, audience interaction and stereotypical characters are maintained. The difference here is re-setting almost the same story in the ‘swingin’ 1960′s seaside resort town of Brighton. The ‘stereotypical’ characters, in this version are drawn from a long British comic tradition going as far back as the Restoration, especially the Carry On movie series, and more recently On the Buses, George and Mildred, Fawlty Towers, Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em and Are You Being Served. There is even a nod and a wink to this tradition (along with other Stoppardian cultural plundring) in Travesties. No other country produces anything else like it, with Australia specialising in a more laconic self-deprecating style. And America’s love of laughing at other people, especially those less ‘advanced’ (The Gods Must Be Crazy II on tele last night).
I am not going to go on at length about this production but to simply say it is dazzlingly perfect. With triple the challenge of keeping us engaged because, unlike Ivanov, it is almost entirely devoid of ‘serious’ content – what we might call a ‘serious theme’. We are here to be drawn into a world fancy and fantasy and kept there to the very end by means of consummate technical execution. The production, I should say up early, was created/directed by the National Theatre’s top honcho Nicholas Hytner with the assistance of Physical Comedy Director, Cal McCrystal.
I can praise the technical accomplishment with confidence because I saw a screening of a live performance of the National’s original production some time late last year in the same Sydney Theatre. So this time I could sit back and see how all the so many pieces of this Swiss clock were put together. To my delight, a couple of the biggest gags I had forgotten and swooped on me in seagull chip-stealing surprise.On the subject of technique. I can’t say how often we miss the mark in doing plays like this in this country. To give us our due, no other nation in the world would be likely to succeed with an attempt at Dimboola or The Hills Family Show. We do ‘messy’ very well. But ‘messy’ is death to this genre of British entertainment.
I recommend this production to anyone who wants a good time. But more so to anyone in the business who thinks one day they may direct or act in a British comedy of this sort. Or even to anyone who has an interest in witnessing an example of theatre-making to perfection. I love the idea that a work for the stage can be so technically impressive, albeit steeped in tradition, entirely engage and need not carry a ‘message’. That low art can be elevated, through sheer execution, to high art. I know the tickets are not cheap, but if you are an emerging theatre maker I urge you to find a way to a performance if you can. It’s like seeing, just once, Nureyev dance or Sutherland sing. That may be a slight exaggeration – or to might not. It depends to what extent you read this work to be a celebration of a special and very demanding theatrical genre. Like Butoh.
Another lovely touch are the music interludes, mostly a look-a-like 60s pop band – but some of the actors get a chance at the microphone as well.
For the record the star of the show is Owain Arthur, in perfect collusion with Edward Bennett, Amy Booth-Steel, Sabrina Carter, Peter Caulfield, Nick Cavaliere, Alicia Davies, Richie Hart, Mark Jackson, Colin Mace, Oliver Seymour Marsh, Mark Monero, Alan Pearson, Kellie Shirley, Seun Shote, Billy Stookes, Philip Murray Warson, Russell Wilcox, Leon Williams, Matthew Woodyatt, Rosie Wyatt. This revival has been spiffily redirected by Adam Penford. The team: Designer – Mark Thompson. Lighting Designer – Mark Henderson. Music (including songs) – Grant Olding. Sound Designer – Paul Arditti. Fight Director – Kate Waters.
Another feature of this production I want to mention is its sustainability. It’s played at the National on the South Bank, on the West End, Broadway, and even in Adelaide before arriving in Sydney. It has more stops to go including Melbourne next. The work is hugely demanding physically, especially for Owain Arthur who is rarely off stage, and for most part at full speed and high tilt. Yet what I saw here in Sydney earlier this week was as fresh and alive as the version I saw in the screen from London many months ago. Pretty much every ‘improvised moment’ is pre-set. How the cast keep up this illusion deserves a gold medal. No slumming it for the colonials.