Francis and Dolly

David Mears as the cheeky, chip-scoffing Francis Henshall with his partner in potato cuisine Ruth Linnett- the loyal accounts girl and factotum Dolly. Pictures: Sam Allard

One Man, Two Guvnors

The Bear Pit Theatre



One Man, Two Guvnors is a very funny play indeed. An extremely clever adaptation by Richard Bean (who recently gave us the equally hilarious The Hypocrite at the RSC’s Swan Theatre) of Carlo Goldoni’s mid-18th century comedy The Servant of Two Masters.

It has all the situation comedy laugh-a-minute moments of, say, The Comedy of Errors or Moliere’s Sganarelle (The Imaginary Cuckold) or The Importance of Being Earnest. What’s more, it calls to mind Brian Rix’s Whitehall farces of the 1950s and ’60s.

In short, it’s an absolute hoot. But it needs a smart-witted cast to pull off the demands of a quick-moving plot and the clutter of bizarre circumstances that keep rolling along. And that it had in this Bear Pit production, which yielded remarkable polish and a marvellous sense of pace and urgency.

Let me get complaints and grizzles out of the way first. I thought the (uncredited) set - not the props - was atrocious. It screamed the word ‘amateur’ from the rooftops. Plain mid-blue (or lightish or airforce blue) walls, two fairly lightweight white doors, a cheap orange hanging curtain at back that looked as if it hadn’t been pressed for years, tiny unrealistic bookcase, The floor – mottled, faded, ugly boards – surely the Bear Pit could get these skimmed for the future? They could probably do it themselves - is just awful. It could have used an imaginative floor cover/cloth  


Graham Tyrer as the desirous boyfriend's father, the legal-minded brief Harry Dangle

No, this production deserved better, much better. True, there can be cost implications, and the intention may have been – witness the deliberately faded pictures - to give the whole thing an anodyne, neutral, part-tatty, part-tidy look; but it suited neither indoor nor outdoor scenes. The odd plant or picture change almost helped. But it was dull, dull, dull. Amateur, in fact.

Just to repeat, the props (Gill Butler, Fenna Jakma), a nice motley bunch of stuff from the cupboard, seemed to me far better. Not the sofa or chair, but touches of paraphernalia. They were all moved with efficiency by brown- and maroon -coated ‘workers’; one or two changes might have been more rapid, but each scene started on the stage manager’s nod like clockwork.

The music was rather fun. Two guitars – one of them also the singer - and a harmonica or washboard, enabled the ‘retro’ trio of Keith Eardley, George Holmes and Arthur Thorpe to deliver a series of Fifties/early Sixties hits (Lonnie Donegan’s ‘Puttin’ on the Agony, Puttin’ on the Style’ and ‘Does Your Chewing Gum Lose it Flavour On the Bedpost Overnight?’, which gradually became an audience singalong. I thought they could have been kitted out in blazers, or something uniform. Their frontstage look added to the tatty appearance of the whole. But not their playing, which was super.

What made the play whirr was, naturally, the acting. It was a team job, and was started well enough by Mike McClusky’s cockney hood Charlie ‘The Duck’ Clench, father of the delightfully thick Pauline (Flo Hatton, her best line the repeated ‘I don’t understand’: she just doesn’t get it). Graham Tyrer’s solicitor, Harry Dangle, was sound enough (though he too was caught up in some dismal blockings from Director Nicky Cox – one straight or wobbly line stretched laterally rearstage, partly caused by the sofa); but his Alfie, the wrinkled retainer, was one of the funnier creations.


Jack Sargent as the lovelorn actor Alan Dangle, who thinks he's being two-timed

That reminds me how good the wigs were – Rachel’s, Alfie’s, Stanley’s – Pamela Hickson and Emma Ingleton are credited with costumes, and they too were fitting (Pauline’s naff attire, Dolly’s proto-miniskirt mutton-dressed-as-lamb outfit, Rache’s boy-attire, Charlie’s Kray-suit, Stanley’s striped upper-class summer blazer).

Ruth Linnett’s Dolly, in search of a feller, and Rob Wootton’s Lloyd – I assume Wootton and Tyrer are regular Bear Pit leads – likewise helped launch things on a right note. Lloyd was a smallish part for Wootton, whom I thought patently capable, as a compact cameo from him later on suggested. ‘Me and Charlie go way back – Parkhurst.’ He could play the gangster himself, but equally well, say, Joe Keller, or Kent/Gloucester in Lear.

The stars of the show all appear later – Bean’s Goldoni adaptation may have inherited that from the original, but it is well judged, making the first scene seem like a pending Agatha Christie. First on is Natalie Danks-Smith’s Rachel, posing as her brother, crazy elongated pageboy wig enhancing her charm. Despite unbroken voice she sounds plausible as a (youngish) brother, and struts around with a nice look-at-me I’m-a-boy demeanour.

Her Viola-like change of sex causes endless problems, because she is seen as a suitor/corrupter of sweet dumb Pauline, which causes endless headaches for (out of work?) actor Alan Dangle, the solicitor’s son, who is poised to marry the wench and is completely gutted thinking she’s fallen for Rachel’s ‘brother’. Jack Sargent offered an aptly stupid, mock-histrionic performance as Alan; and as a distraught lover, with touches of Romeo meets Mercutio, he did fine.

Pauline and Dolly

Flo Hatton as the lovelorn but hopeless Pauline Clench, with Ruth Linnett as the amorous Dolly

The focal character, the James Corden role, the ordinarily, unlikely named Francis Henshall, is played by David Mears. This was the pro performance of the evening. He holds an audience brilliantly. His eyes, eyebrows, mouth, lips, neck, shoulders are all called into play in a magnificent array of grimaces and ironic smiles, pleading and frowning and cringing, manoeuvring others and going through a collection of elastic adaptations himself. He never stops working and devising new wimpish or terrified faces.

Speaking with real clarity and polish (not a whisper gets lost), he is pure nirvana to listen to. His soliloquies – there are plenty of them – are sheer joy, especially his ‘do I – don’t I’, ‘what if – what if not, inner exchanges. The side-splitting ad-libbing was most professional of all. The cockney accent is – where? Ray Winstone? Roy Dotrice? Ronnie Barker? David Jason? What an unadulterated, never-ceasing treat Mears’ performance is.

Mainly, Mears has to manoeuvre between two of the characters, whom he purports to be a lackey for. The first is the disguised Rachel. The other is the even more unlikely-named Stanley Stubbers, who ought to be called Immingham-Randall, a public school toff (there are some nice jokes about the boy stuff that goes on in our renowned boarding institutions – the least indecent being ‘I understand, I too enjoy pain’) in the most gloriously ridiculous blond wig.

He gets lines such as ‘First names are for girls and Norwegians’; ‘Three kisses? That’s a bit girlie-girlie Greek Island’. The only Stubbers-like thing about him is that he has (somehow) bumped off Rachel’s brother. Rachel, meanwhile, has actually fallen for him despite his murky action. Hence her opportunity to impersonate her late fraternal sibling. 


Roger Ganner as the bizarrely gullible, toff-like murderer, Stanley Stubbers

  The well-wrought witty lines come thick and fast in this beautifully scripted play. ‘Five years ago I was young and stupid’ ‘So what’s changed?’ ‘I’ve been nil by mouth for 16 hours’ (Henshall’s ubiquitous passion is food – cue a host more jokes); ‘Wrap his nuts in bacon and send him to nurse’; ‘What’s a nemesis?’ ‘Definitely foreign, I think: it may be a Citroen’; ‘Keep your wig on’ (to bald waiter). ‘I got the equivalent of a 2/1 in Irony from the University of Durham’; ‘I’ve left my horse on a double yellow’; I’ve not had a proper sorting out for a while’; ‘Spent every (science) lesson in the radiation cupboard trying to make my penis grow’; ‘Good, at least we haven’t got any dicks in here’; ‘There’s only so much tossing a man can endure’; ‘We all love a bit of pollock’: you get the idea; it could be Plautus, or Aristophanes.

The quickfire exits were mostly good news. Dolly’s exits especially, accentuated by a crazy bouffant fair wig (at six foot something she has to angle and stoop to get through any entrance) won audience laughs every time. Funny how we laugh to see the same old joke again, usually the rule in comedy is don’t repeat a line if it gets a laugh – it won’t do so the next time. Ruth Linnett’s Dolly certainly helped the humour. One particular scene, involving a whiteboard (or whatever) and a demonstration of monozygotic-dizugotic twins was a delightful diversion near the end. The musical finale – ‘Tomorrow Looks Good From Here’ was a treat.  

Well done, the Bear Pit. And well done, Mears and co. I had a thoroughly good evening, and like others there, I could scarcely contain myself. The laughter – and the endless jests – were infectious. We all guffawed. All through. To 20-05-17

Roderic Dunnett


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