One Man, Two Guvnors, Cardiff Open Air Theatre Festival

July 5, 2024 by


Open air theatre can be a cruel mistress. Head down to Sophia Gardens on a balmy Summer day, and you’re certain to enjoy the show with the additional perk of the ambience and atmospheric setting. British Summers, however, are a fickle thing, and so you’re just as likely to end up settling down to watch a play on a grim, blustery night, which is exactly what happened with this performance of One Man, Two Guvnors, brought to the Cardiff Open Air Theatre Festival under the direction of Simon H West. Since the festival is a long-runner, the organisation is well prepared, and the audience is abundantly sheltered, but the same cannot be said of the cast, who had to perform on a wet stage and – repeatedly – while being pelted with rain. Given the fast pace of the play and the amount of physical comedy it contains, this was no mean feat, and the admirable level of sang froid with which it was accomplished deserves praise before anything else. Under such circumstances, any production could easily have been forgiven for being less than optimal in its rendition; the cast delivered instead a performance which was tight and perfectly paced, with no visible sign of discomfort. Nothing but a genuine love of the craft could have delivered this result, and the audience ended up having a very enjoyable night in spite of the rather Autumnal weather.

To me, as an Italian and a theatre lover, this play is an interesting experiment. It takes the premise and narrative of The Servant of Two Masters, the 1746 classic by Carlo Goldoni, a Venetian playwright who is, at least as far as comedy is concerned, to Italian theatre something akin to what Shakespeare is to English-language theatre. The story is well-known and beloved, and, perhaps most importantly, firmly rooted in the conventions of Commedia dell’Arte, the traditional, mask-based theatre form Goldoni started with, evolved and developed, and eventually left behind. In the original, the main character is the traditional mask Harlequin, a figure which would have instantly been known to the audience, requiring no introduction: a simple look would have been enough for the audience to know they were confronted with the figure of the shrewd but rough-edged servant, doomed to perpetual poverty in spite of his wits and driven by equally perpetual hunger, used to performing slapstick routines and physical comedy. No such context, of course, is readily available to the British audience, which approaches the play from a different cultural background; and there is no room for masks in its 60s London, gangster-story setting. The inevitable question was therefore: would the story, taken out of its original context, work? Can it keep, if not its exact trappings, its soul?


The answer to this question is, very pleasingly, a resounding yes. Not only that, One Man, Two Guvnors delights in conversing with Goldoni’s original text, through a series of little touches that are especially delightful if you’re familiar with the original – but not obnoxious or distracting if you’re not. At one point, for instance, at the start of the second act, main character Francis Henshall (played with a balanced mix of goofiness and charisma by Matthew Preece) gives a quick explanation of the traditional role he is playing, and seamlessly manages to turn it into a joke; there is a running bit of people noting that cross-dressing co-protagonist Rachel (Bethan Maddocks) is able to pass as her deceased brother Roscoe because they are identical twins, only for her to become increasingly frustrated at the utter impossibility of twins of opposite genders being identical (the identical brother and sister issue is a crucial plot device in Goldoni’s work; needless to say, the understanding of human genetics was not quite the same in 1746). Perhaps most remarkably, all the core moments of the original story remain in this new, very British take, down to individual jokes, and they never feel forced. That is no mean feat, especially in a play so fast-paced.


Also far from easy, especially in 2024, is making slapstick humour consistently funny for two hours in a row. The lunch scene especially (I will make no spoilers, but watch out for a certain bit of audience interaction) is a masterclass in this, both in its ability to keep a sustained pace for a relatively lengthy time and in the way it manages to deliver physical comedy without feeling trite or cringeworthy. Some excellent performances are the backbone of this particular skill, among which it would be impossible not to mention Joan Hoctor as the elderly waiter Elsie, genuinely one of the most charming characters in the whole play, and Joshua Ogle as the boorish Stanley Stubbers – a character which somehow manages to be endearing in spite of the fact that, going by the script, he should be mostly obnoxious; selling a character like this mostly through body language is yet another remarkable achievement from this cast and director. Overall, the entire cast delivered very strong performances, full of little touches that elevated them beyond the simple need to make the audience laugh; also worthy of special mention are Brogan Rogers as Pauline and Tom Price as Alan, whose oddball duet on Skeeter Davis’ The End of the World was one of the most delightful moments in the play.

Goldoni was a comedy writer who liked to be witty but also never shied from chasing belly laughs, and in this too One Man, Two Guvnors was faithful to the original. As the play proceeded at sometimes breakneck pace, there was only rarely a moment in which the audience wasn’t laughing loudly, which is perhaps the best possible testament to the success of a work like this. Light-hearted comedy can be intelligent, insightful, and even meta-textual without losing its levity and entertainment value: this is perhaps the most important take-home element in a thoroughly successful production.

Until July 13

Images: Cressida Ford

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