The National Theatre isn't one of those organisations that plays safe or shuns risk-taking. Of course, old favourites make regular appearances, but there's also lots of new and interesting things which pop up on quite a regular basis. Some, like the brilliant 'War Horse', are ideas which, at least on paper, might not have seemed potential hits. Try thinking how you might have reacted to the suggestion of having puppet horses made of see-through cane as the major feature of the show! So what's the point? Well, here's another risky venture which mixes panto, music hall, farce, smut and a whole lot more, and sounds equally risky and equally unlikely to succeed. But it turns out to be one of the funniest shows I've seen and looks like being a rip-roaring hit.
For the first few minutes, though, I almost thought I'd got the wrong address. An odd assortment of characters are assembled in someone's living room. The garish décor looks like the worst amateur makeover imaginable and the banter feels like the kind of sitcom dialogue which is the stuff of my nightmares. But when Francis (James Corden) arrives at this somewhat moribund do, everything changes. When he enters the room, he strolls around without saying anything, then stops and looks at a portrait of the Queen and says “Who's this?”. From thereon in, it's downhill – or uphill – all the way.
Describing the plot is like explaining a black hole to a four year-old. But I'll try. It's 1963 and the location is Brighton. Two underworld gangs are about to be united via a marriage. But Rosco, one of a pair of dizygotic twins, has been killed. So, Pauline (the daughter of gangster Charlie “the Duck” Clench), wants to marry Alan, a wannabe actor who is the son of Charlie's lawyer, Harry Dangle. But then Francis arrives. He's the minder of the deceased gangster, and it appears that Rosco isn't dead after all. The marriage can take place as planned, but Pauline and Alan aren't happy. Francis repairs to a local pub and there is offered a second job by a toff called Stanley. And here's where the title comes in – Francis now has two 'guvnors' who must be served but kept ignorant of the fact that Francis is moonlighting.
I suspect that director, Nicholas Hytner, might have had people hammering down his door to get a part in this show. You can tell that the cast are relishing every single moment. With a terrific script from Richard Bean and the opportunity to create larger-than-life characters, it must be an actor's dream. But, though the show's concept is wild and ridiculous, everything is kept in check by Mr Hytner, so it never actually crosses the line of going completely over the top.
James Corden is Francis, the man with two bosses, and is just superb both in his handling of the material and the audience. I don't generally feel that stature is always important in creating a successful performance, but James Corden's slightly rotund frame really is perfect for the part. And his character's obsession with food also fits the bill perfectly as do his asides to the audience. Mr Corden is extremely funny, but he has terrific support from a fabulous cast. In particular, Daniel Rigby is first-class as Alan, the wannabe actor who makes overacting almost seem appealing. Oliver Chris is Stanley Stubbers, the 'boarding school trained' toff who has a wonderful array of hilarious lines such as “first names are for girls and Norwegians” and others I dare not mention here. And there's a riotously funny performance by Tom Edden as the octogenarian waiter, Alfie, who staggers around serving food, resulting in some predictable but wonderfully effective visual gags.
The entertainment starts even before the curtain goes up. A fabulous skiffle band called 'The Craze' play us in, and during regular breaks in the drama. The cast also take turns on musical instruments as varied as steel drums and horns - the kind with rubber balls attached to them to blow air through. And Alan, the actor, even plays his chest! It's almost like music hall with the cast doing 'turns'.
There are running gags throughout the show almost in panto style. Australia and its connections with opera, identical twins, and Parkhurst prison all come in for the treatment. You'd think that these continual references would fall flat after a while, but they actually get funnier the more they are mentioned. The audience are not left out of the equation either. James Corden manages to enlist the help of several members of the audience in various tasks and when he asks anyone if they have a sandwich, he actually gets offers of a humus sandwich and sushi (“It's 1963!” Mr Corden exclaims).
There are odd occasions when I lapse into convulsive, unstoppable fits of laughter – usually brought-on by something particularly ridiculous. I could feel such on onset here, but held back in consideration of my neighbours. Nevertheless, note-taking became almost impossible as I was shaking with laughter so much. The second half is not as hilarious as the first, but by that stage the infectious humour has got a firm hold, and there's still plenty to laugh at, particularly the running jokes.
I'm afraid I more or less got lost in the plot after the interval, but it really doesn't matter as it's that kind of show. What does matter is that it really is fantastic entertainment and fabulously funny. But you may have to hammer pretty hard on the National's door to get tickets as it is sure to be a sell-out, and deservedly so.
"An evening of riotous delight"
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"Bubbles over with humour. A surefire hit. "
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"One massive hit"
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"One of the funniest productions in the National's history."
Michael Billington for The Guardian