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Capping his influential 10-year tenure at Delaware Theatre Company, artistic director Bud Martin has chosen to go out with the bang of slamming doors and a flurry of Marx Brothers/Three Stooges-style pratfalls. For his goodbye, Martin has directed a side-splitting show, One Man, Two Guvnors, the British farce whose storied 2011 London production put James Corden on the fast-track to stardom.
The inventive, convoluted, and hilarious script is Richard Bean’s adroit adaptation of The Servant of Two Masters, a classic commedia dell’arte farce by 18th-century Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni. Bean set his show in 1963, populated by small-time crooks in the English seacoast town of Brighton. There, down-on-his-luck, just-fired musician Francis Henshall (DJ Gleason) takes on two jobs to beef up his bank account and get some real beef (it’s been a while since he’s eaten). “How hard could it be?” working for two people, he asks. Hilariously, he finds out.
One boss (“guvnor”) is Rachel Crabbe (Karen Peakes), who’s posing as her dead brother Roscoe. She’s in town to collect money from Charlie “The Duck” Clench (John Bellomo) and his lusty bookkeeper Dolly (Kelly McCaughan). Charlie is the father of dead-Roscoe’s fiancée, the daft Pauline (Renee McFillin), engaged to Alan Dangle (Dave Johnson), a preening would-be actor whose father Henry (Bruce Graham) is Charlie’s less-than-above-board lawyer.
Francis’s other boss is Rachel’s boarding-school educated boyfriend, Stanley Stubbers (Jake Blouch), who killed her brother and (hiding from the police) has come to meet Rachel so they can escape to Australia. Everyone is holed up at the same pub hotel, The Cricketers Arms, run by former crook Lloyd Boateng (Charvez Grant) and staffed by octogenarian waiter, Alfie (Brian McCann). To prevent the discovery of his duplicity, an increasingly confused Francis must work ever harder to keep his two guvnors apart.
Let your farce flag fly
Of course, mayhem and door-slamming and pratfalls and flying food ensue, as the play and its actors careen to a ridiculous comic conclusion. Martin has fearlessly let his farce flag fly, directing this intricate production with panache to ensure that everyone onstage (and in the audience) has a rip-roaring time. The play regularly breaks the fourth wall, as people are brought up from the seats for hilarious stunts, and bonhomie abounds.
The character of Francis runs the farcical action, a big assignment, and Gleason—lithe and agile and careening around the stage as things get out of his control—is up to this comic task. His ad libs with the audience are right on point, and the character, who could grow tiresome in less assured hands, is a continual charmer. The entire company excels at making the labyrinthine plot (and some arcane British references) amply clear, and these actors are up to the mark for the stage skill and total commitment to zaniness that farce requires.
The opening-night performance had three very last-minute cast changes: musician Emmett Drueding, Grant (only his second day in the show), and Bellomo, who also supervised the rip-roaring physical comedy. In his curtain speech, Martin noted that Covid-19, playing havoc with the company, meant that he rarely had a full cast at rehearsals or previews. But if he hadn’t said so, you’d not guess it.
Running throughout is clever musical commentary, performed music-hall style by Drueding and Andrew Nelson. The two musicians pop up on the side of the stage before and during the show, periodically joined by actors who can (or comically cannot) play their assigned instrument. The duo was also joined by the three women singing the lustily comic “Lighten Up and Lay Low,” and the show ends with the cast singing its signature song, “Tomorrow Looks Good from Here.”
The only major caveat to enjoying this production is to pay attention to the comically convoluted plot details set out at the beginning. Once you’ve got that under your theatrical belt, you’ll be set for the ride.
A comic bullseye
And speaking of set, Colin McIlvaine’s scenic design perfectly evokes the tacky ambiance of a seaside British music hall, with a red velvet curtain and its flat-painted, clearly unreal flats illuminated by Shannon Zura’s cleverly flat lighting. Costume designer Katherine Fritz has outdone herself with a series of 1960s downscale, tacky apparel that includes warning-light-yellow clothing, too-short pants, and some remarkable male facial (and other) hair.
Bean’s script shoots a comic bullseye right from the opening, though the second act (with its metatheatrical reference to the classic play on which it’s based) is a little less tightly written. But the audience—amply warmed up by the musicians and buoyed by the actors—clapped and sang along all evening long, hooting with glee and responding gamely to the insanity.
One Man, Two Guvnors could hardly be sillier or less topical. And that’s exactly the point. As Martin exits his decade-long run as DTC’s artistic director, he wanted to offer the theater’s patrons and enthusiastic supporters a comic valentine, and here it is.
What, When, Where
One Man, Two Guvnors. By Richard Bean, music by Grant Olding, and lyrics by Bean and Olding; directed by Bud Martin. $29-$65. Through February 19, 2023, at Delaware Theatre Company, 200 Water Street, Wilmington. (302) 594-1100 or delawaretheatre.org.
With the theater’s updated HVAC system, masks are not required, though some audience members wore them on opening night.
DTC is a wheelchair-accessible venue with wireless assistive listening and large-print programs available. For wheelchair-accessible seating, notify the box office at (302) 594-1100.
Free parking is adjacent to the theater, which is a short walk from the Wilmington train station serviced by SEPTA and Amtrak.
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