Posh panto: One Man Two Guvnors

Our theatre blogger goes to see what the fuss is all about.

You may have caught James Corden’s lachrymose, personal pronoun-challenged speech as he collected the Best Actor Tony for his role in One Man, Two Guvnors? (“my fiançée . . . made me say us instead of I and we instead of me”). You may also have caught some of the hyperbole from critics, about “the most glorious comedy on the planet” (Daily Mail).

You may be wondering what has prompted this near universal acclaim. (Universal, that is, apart from amongst the Olivier judges who gave it a sniffy miss at the awards.) Could One Man, Two Guvnors possibly be all that?

To find out I went to its West End monozygotic twin, and if you’ve seen the show you’ll recognize a “hilarious” in-joke, as twins and twinning feature heavily in its crazy, kiss-me-quick plot. Writer Richard Bean has taken a 1743 farce, which itself draws directly from the clowning traditions of Commedia dell’arte, and plonked all the knockabout down amongst the old lags and crooks of a tawdry Brighton, 1963.

And parts of it are very good indeed. Corden’s opposite number, Owain Arthur, does sterling, riotous work as the “man” Frances Henshall. The diamond patternings of the harlequin are here updated to checked suit. In the first act this commedia throwback is permanently starving, and his desire for nosh pushes the plot and the slapstick along nicely. It’s always a pleasure to see the, er, heavy-boned move with unexpected elasticity, and his servant scams are kept live like spinning plates. They, like the show itself, appear always to be in danger of imminent collapse.

The extent to which the very performance is threatened by rogue or at least hapless elements in the audience - this is posh panto, folks! - is kept artfully unclear. The anarchical effect had some in the auditorium fooled till the curtain call, and indeed beyond, if internet postings are to be believed.

There are very silly, very enjoyable cameos. The actorly Orlando Dangle (Daniel Ings), who has changed his name to Alan in deference to the wave of angry young men beating at The Drama’s shores, postures alarmingly in too-tight, too-short trousers, his heroic speeches dwindling to bathos: “mine honour has been fiddled with”. Ben Mansfield is delightful as nincompoop Stanley Stubbers - think Hugh Laurie in the Blackadder years (woof!). A Sixties-style beat combo (“The Craze”: the Krays?) make scene-stealers out of scene changes.

Best ratio of lines (few) to laughter (lots) surely belongs to Martin Barras as ancient newbie waiter Alfie. His tremors are of Parkinsonian proportions, and he’s at the cruel mercy, variously, of his pacemaker, banging doors, soup tureens and stairwells. His chronic wobbliness reminded me of something Joss Houben said in The Art of Laughter, that comedy is about verticality: as we tip away from the vertical, so we tip away from our dignity. Barras’s exquisite tippings have the first act wound up in a delirium of laughter.

But it’s a game of two halves. In Euro 2012 terms, the play scores thrillingly, decisively in the first half, then spends the second half in dull lock-down mode, defending its lead. The play is better value when Harlequin is motivated by food than when motivated by sex: after the interval Henshall’s aims switch from chips to dollybird (a bosomy saucebox, actually called “Dolly”, and a not entirely convincing proto-feminist). Act two is a foot-drumming period of tying up loose ends. Under all the “anarchy” beats a strictly classical heart: OMTG is a world in which every Jack gets his Jill.

Broad, old-fashioned, physical comedy, which neutralises extreme violence with the spirit of farce, clearly hits a nerve, however. The audience, it’s safe to say, was in hilarity meltdown.

If I were to be uncharitable, I would say that for a great night out, go see OMTG; for an even better night out, leave at the interval. Or keep Harlequin hungry.

The cast of the Broadway production of One Man, Two Guvnors (Photograph: Getty Images)
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In Kid Gloves, Knausgaardian style provides a route through a writer's grief

Adam Mars-Jones has created a clever, stoical and cool account of caring for a dying father.

In bookish circles, it’s pretty commonplace these days to remark on the way in which the spirit of the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard hangs over our literary culture – noxious gas or enlivening blast of ­oxygen, depending on your point of view. Nor would I be the first critic to point out the similarities between his prolixity and that of the British novelist Adam Mars-Jones. Reviewing Knausgaard’s My Struggle in the New Yorker, James Wood likened its style – “hundreds of pages of autopsied minutiae” – to that of Mars-Jones’s novels Pilcrow and Cedilla, the first two volumes in a thus far unfinished project in “micro-realism”. But originality be damned: I’m going to say it anyway. As I read Mars-Jones’s new memoir, Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father, it was Knausgaard I thought of repeatedly. Mostly, this was because I simply couldn’t believe I was so fascinated by a book that was at times so very boring.

Mars-Jones is by far the more elegant writer of the two. He is also feline where Knausgaard is only wide-eyed. Nevertheless, they clamber (slowly and with many pauses to consider the view) over comparable territory. What, after all, is Knausgaard’s account of the effect of milk on a bowl of ­cereal compared to Mars-Jones’s disquisition on the subject of orange juice? The Norwegian’s reverie is the longer of the two but it is Mars-Jones who is the more triumphantly banal. “Shopping on a Monday I saw a wide variety of types of orange juice on display in a supermarket and bought large quantities,” he writes early on. I love that “Monday” – it’s so precise. But it also prompts the question: which supermarket, exactly, was he in? Was it the same “large branch of Sainsbury’s” where, three paragraphs later, we find him picking up a carton of buttermilk?

You will think that I am taking the piss. I’m not – or not entirely. For all its pedantic weirdness, Mars-Jones’s memoir, clotted and rich and true, does its job rather well. As the subtitle suggests, at its heart is his tricky relationship with Sir William Mars-Jones, the high court judge who died in 1999. A clever man but also a difficult one (having made a bit of a leap in terms of education and social class, he clung rather ardently to certain comforting reflexes), he is brought to life vividly by his son, who often simply replays their most frustrating conversations. In doing so, Mars-Jones, Jr also tells us something of himself. He comes over as a bit silly and fastidious but also as clever, stoical, kindly and, above all, ever cool in the face of provocation. In this light, his Pooterish digressions are just another symptom of his unnervingly temperate personality, his clinical even-handedness.

His memoir is oddly artless, the stories tumbling out, one after another, like washing pulled from a machine. An account of his father’s better-known cases (he prosecuted in the Moors murders trial) shades into a detour on soup-making; an analysis of Sir William’s retirement – he gravitated, his son writes, towards the state of “inanition” – takes us, almost slyly, to an explanation of why Mars-Jones tenderly associates Badedas with shingles (a friend who had yet to discover he had Aids, of which shingles can be a symptom, bathed in it).

The reader waits, and waits, for the big scene, for the moment when Mars-Jones tells his father, a regular kind of homophobe, that he is gay. But in a strange way (it does arrive eventually) this is beside the point. From the outset, we know that it was Adam, not his brothers, who looked after his widowed father in his last days, sharing his flat in Gray’s Inn Square; so we know already that an accommodation has been reached, however horrifying Pater’s reaction was at the time. (Mars-Jones, Sr suggested that his son could not possibly be gay because, as a boy, he played with himself during a film starring Jacqueline Bisset; more cruelly, he delegated his clerk to research the possibilities of testosterone treatment for his son.) In any case, there is a universality here: for which of us, gay or not, hasn’t trembled on hearing our mother say, down the line from home, the dread phrase “Dad would like a word”?

After his father’s death, Mars-Jones attempts to continue to live in his parents’ home, insisting that the inn will have to evict him if it wants him gone. When it does turf him out, he writes a piece for the Times in which he denounces its members – in ­effect, his parents’ friends and neighbours. Is this just the response of a more than usually broke freelance writer? Or is it that of a man in deep grief?

Perhaps it’s both. Mars-Jones tells us quite a bit about his parlous finances but relatively little of his feelings of abandonment. He was closer to his mother. It is more than 15 years since his father died. And yet, here it is, his book. Those Knausgaardian impulses of his – perhaps they’re just displacement for his loss, word-fill for a void so unfathomably big that it still takes him by surprise, even now. 

Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father is available now from Particular Books (£16.99)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism