James Corden, Nicholas Hytner, Richard Bean: One Man, Two Guvnors roundtable
7th November 2011
As ‘One Man, Two Guvnors’ transfers to the West End, actor James Corden, playwright Richard Bean and director Nicholas Hytner talk about the creation of a feelgood hit. First published Nov 7, 2011.
The NT has the feelgood hit of the summer on its hands with Richard Bean’s inspired and deliriously funny adaptation of The Servant of Two Masters by the Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni,” Charles Spencer declared in his rave review of One Man, Two Guvnors in May. Transferring to the West End in time for the festive season, the production – hailed as one of the funniest in the National’s history – looks set to be a winter smash too, and the latest addition to the capital’s select band of long-runners.
It features at its heart a career-making performance as the crafty, lowly, put-upon, eternally famished servant Francis Henshall (Truffaldino in the original) from James Corden, who first made his name on stage playing Timms in The History Boys at the National (2004).
Corden, who went on to scoop multiple Baftas for his writing and starring role in the BBC sitcom Gavin and Stacey before becoming an institution in his Comic Relief turns as Smithy, his beloved, larger-than-life character from that show, here joins his two masters, playwright Richard Bean and director Nicholas Hytner, head of the National, to reflect for the first time together on what has gone so winningly right.
Dominic Cavendish It’s great to be able to stand at this point between one great chapter of success for a show and the next. Just to rewind to the beginning: Nicholas Hytner, what was the starting-point – you had a desire for the Goldoni play The Servant of Two Masters to be on the stage at the National in some form?
Nick Hytner It has happened three or four times, that you look at the programme for the coming year and think, “There’s one thing missing.” It can be, “We need an all-out big comedy in the Olivier.” That’s what happened with London Assurance. I read it, thought, “It’s not funny enough – call up Bean.” Eighty per cent of the laughs in that show were his. Again this was, “We need a comedy” and I’d been talking for a while about finding something for James, because I thought he was frittering away his time on game shows. (Corden laughs.)
Sebastian Born, associate director at the NT’s literary department, suggested The Servant of Two Masters. I immediately thought that was a great idea for James. As it happened, I knew the play really well because I played his part in a school production. It used to be a very popular school play. Everything rattled on from there. Call for Bean, again, that was obvious.
DC Did you know the play?
James Corden I didn’t. I was just down the road at ITV when Nick called and said, “Would you like to do a play next year at the National Theatre?” I said: “Would you be directing it?” He said: “Yes.” I said: “Yes.” He said: “You don’t want to know what it is?” I said: “It doesn’t matter.” I think all eight of us boys who were in The History Boys have an emotional pull towards this building and an even greater emotional pull towards Nick, so when you get a phone call like that you’re not going to say, “I need to see what it is.” You just do it, that’s it. It’s like being called up to the England team – you don’t ask if you’re going to play, you just say “Yes, I’m in.”
DC Was there a feeling that something different had to be done with it?
Richard Bean There was a motivation to smash this weird reverence about commedia dell’arte, wasn’t there? We’re always meeting actors who claim to have worked with Lecoq [French actor and instructor Jacques Lecoq] and it’s kind of annoying, isn’t it?
NH What I knew about commedia dell’arte made me think that the nerdy fascination of those who get into commedia is beside the point. This was rough, popular theatre. All this kind of comedy has the same roots. Look at Plautus, look at Shakespeare. What makes it tick is that belly-laugh angle on life which says that we can all be reduced to a collection of comic types, all wanting to eat, all wanting to have sex, all wanting to get rich.
DC Whose idea was it to set it in Sixties Brighton?
NH When I called Richard I was already on to Brighton and I had a hunch about Carry On as well. Richard ran with that.
DC And did you sit down and work alongside the original, Richard?
RB Yes. I worked from a literal translation because if you do this, you’ve got to get to the bare bones of it. If you’ve ever read a literal, though, you’ll know that you read it for five minutes then fall asleep. It’s impossibly dull. It’s like a blank piece of paper – you’ve got your structure but you’ve got nothing else.
DC A lot of your plays have a satirical – or at least comic – drive of indignation in them. Does it feel like a holiday, then, when there isn’t a particular question to ask?
RB It’s more of a craft job, yes. There’s not so much angst. What we wanted to create was a popular comedy – and that’s tough enough without trying to drag in the firmament. So, it’s not a holiday. I’ve written only one farce before this – In the Club – and it’s the only time I’ve sat in my study and rocked in the corner crying “I cannot do this.” It’s so hard. Farce isn’t about the jokes, it’s the structure, the car engine.
DC When we first meet Francis he has been dumped from a skiffle band – and has become a gangster’s lackey. Does he still have leanings to be a showman?
JC I don’t even know if it’s that. I don’t think he’s got an urge to perform, I think he’s got an urge to get his leg over, have a good meal and a drink and if he gets that it’s been a good day. He’s pretty similar to lots of my mates.
DC You have described yourself as an incorrigible clown figure in childhood and at school. Is there something satisfying about ending up in this archetypal clown role?
JC Man, I couldn’t wish to play a better part. The guy’s on stage two minutes, and he falls over a chair, do you know what I mean? Every time I turned over a page of the script, I’d go “ahh!” It’s a gift to anyone who wants to be an actor and has an interest in comedy. There are things in this play that have never happened in the National Theatre before – and don’t regularly happen in the West End or anywhere really.
We’re looking at four months in the West End. It might carry on after that. Even now I think I will be devastated when this stops.
As an actor I never grew up dreaming of playing Hamlet, I dreamt about doing this – I really did. I’ve only been to the Adelphi once. I was 11. I went to see Me and My Girl – starring Gary Wilmot, as a family trip at Christmas. And as we walked out, I said to my dad, “I want to do that”. So, driving past that theatre now is just incredible.”
DC Is there no part of you that finds it so knackering you’d like to give it up?
JC My knees do! Five minutes before the show starts it’s like you’re looking at a hill, thinking, “I’ve got to run up this really fast.” The minute you set off, though, it’s never tiring. It’s never anything other than the best fun I’ve ever had at work. The greatest thing is that you never do the same show twice. Every night is different. People at the stage door say, “You look like you’re having a great time,” and I think to myself: “You don’t even know the half of it.” When we opened, I’ve never been more terrified. Now I feel completely at home doing it. I’ve never been happier professionally or personally than I am now. I hope that continues.
Dominic Cavendish is the lead theatre critic for The Daily Telegraph. He is the founding editor of the audio archive Theatrevoice
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