Written by Charlie O’Brien
“Is it possible that this hugely disorientating and challenging upheaval we’re all now navigating, separating ourselves off from each other on a local and global scale, will actually bridge some of the distances between us in the long run? Theatre is brilliant at exploring this kind of big question. Contemplating complex, intricate and nuanced ideas is its forte… after all it has a couple of hours to play with unlike click-bait headlines or 280 characters. Theatre is also great at making us laugh uproariously, and weep deeply. It can be exciting, magical, celebratory and breathtaking. Above all it brings us together in the most empathetic and comforting way, and its fascination with the trials, tribulations and wonders of Life is itself a beacon of hope, wisdom, solidarity and optimism.”
This message from Matthew Warchus – artistic director at the Old Vic and director of 2014’s Pride – encapsulates the transcendent power of the arts to bring people together in adverse times. Auditoriums stand silent and house lights are down across the UK. Yet theatre is exactly what we need more than ever right now. So, the National Theatre at Home is bringing some of the greatest shows of recent years to YouTube. Each week a different production will be beamed right into your living room for free via the NT’s Youtube channel on Thursdays at 7pm (BST), remaining available on demand for seven days. This is a unique opportunity for both fans and cultural institutions to emulate and continue the communal experience of theatre. It’s also an effective way of overcoming the theatre’s longstanding obstacles of elitism and accessibility, attracting new audiences young and old. This democratising process had already begun (in 2019 the National Theatre had 26,426 screenings around the world) and may just be accelerated by the current situation.
The programme began last week with Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors, an adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s 1746 Italian comedy The Servant of Two Masters. The play originally opened in 2011 to critical acclaim and went on to become a hit in the West End, ultimately transferring to Broadway and earning a Tony Award for its lead James Corden. It is a riotous farce of a comedy. Francis Henshall (Corden) is the personal minder to Roscoe Crabbe, an East End man about town who has arrived in Brighton to collect £6,000 from his fiancée’s dad. Turns out Roscoe is really his twin sister Rachel posing as her brother, who has been killed by her boyfriend Stanley Stubbers. Francis ends up taking on a second job with said fugitive Stubbers but must keep his two guvnors apart! Under Nicholas Hytner’s direction (The History Boys, The Lady in the Van) the play deploys Shakespearean cases of mistaken identity to brilliant effect, with cross-dressing and subterfuge along the way. Grant Olding’s songs, performed by The Craze, contribute to the swinging Sixties setting as the action is transposed from Italy to Brighton in 1963.
The success of One Man, Two Guvnors went a long way in re-endearing Corden to audiences and launching his post-Smithy career. His performance here is impressive. The role showcases his dexterity as he improvises and interacts with the audience, as well executing silent era physical comedy. Francis is part wideboy, part klutz, a Dickensian jester wheelin’ and dealin’ his way in and out of trouble, artfully dodging the consequences of his mishaps. The terrific ensemble cast manage to effortlessly combine visual and verbal comedy, navigating the farcical set pieces with assurance. Special mentions must go to Oliver Chris as Stanley Stubbers, Suzie Toase as Dolly and Daniel Rigby as Alan Dangle. At times simply their arrival on stage provoked uncontrollable laughter. There is dizzying wordplay and side-splitting slapstick. The dynamic sequences are so fast paced that it could easily have become messy without the tight choreography from Adam Penford.
I was initially wary that the overblown theatricality of stage acting, especially the facial expressions and body language, may not translate well to the screen but this was not an issue. The transition to screen is reasonably smooth as state-of-the-art filming techniques are tailored specifically to each play, from close-ups to sweeping wide shots which situate you right in the audience POV. The second half did drag a little as the full-throttle pace began to run out of steam; overall, though, One Man, Two Guvnors is very watchable, and you can understand why it was so popular.
You might think that the theatre is irrelevant at a time like this. That art is rendered redundant during a national emergency. In fact, we must protect and sustain the cultural sector in this time of crisis. Down through the ages, communities have used art and culture to lean on in times of war, austerity, and distress. Now more than ever it is paramount that we support the arts and cultural institutes, whether that is through subscriptions or donations or flooding through their doors once society has resumed. In the words of Warchus; ‘Let’s all focus on coming through this separation with our togetherness intact. Even strengthened. Take care of yourselves and each other. Be creative. There’s going to be some great theatre on the other side.’ Put your feet up and have a night in at the theatre.
- Thursday 2 April: One Man, Two Guvnors by Richard Bean
- Thursday 9 April: Jane Eyre by Sally Cookson
- Thursday 16 April: Treasure Island by Bryony Lavery
- Thursday 23 April: Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare
Shows start at 7pm (BST) on the NT Youtube channel (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCUDq1XzCY0NIOYVJvEMQjqw) and remain available for 7 days thereafter. With more productions to be announced, the series will run through to May.