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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Women don’t make concept albums: how BBC Four’s When Pop Went Epic erases popular music’s diverse history

Why are the only albums blessed with the grandiose description of “conceptual” the ones made by white men?

Tonight, BBC Four airs a documentary exploring the history of the concept album called When Pop Went Epic: The Crazy World of the Concept Album. Presented by prog rock veteran Rick Wakeman, the programme set out to “examine the roots of the concept album in its various forms”, as well as cycling through the greatest examples of the musical phenomenon.

“Tracing the story of the concept album is like going through a maze,” says dear old Rick incredulously, while ambling round a literal maze on screen, just so we fully get the symbolism. But if the history of concept albums is a labyrinth, Wakeman has chosen a gymnastic route through it, one filled with diversions and shortcuts that studiously avoid the diversity of the format’s history. He imagines the concept album to begin with Woody Guthrie’s 1940s record about poverty and class struggle in America, Dust Bowl Ballads, following on with Frank Sinatra’s Only the Lonely (1958) and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966), before moving on to big hitters like Sgt Pepper and Tommy. It quickly seems apparent that the first albums blessed with the grandiose description “conceptual” are the ones made by white men, and Wakeman’s history credits them with inventing the form.

What about Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige (1943-58), a history of American blackness? Miles Davis’s Milestones, a 1958 LP-length experiment with modal harmonies? Sun Ra’s particular blend of science fiction and Egyptian mythology on albums like The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (1961)? When Wakeman reaches what he considers to be the first from a black artist, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On , he notes that it “comes from a musical culture where the concept album was quite alien”.

Certainly, Motown was a towering monument to the power of the single, not the album, but we know that one of Gaye’s greatest inflences was Nat King Cole: why not mention his 1960 concept album, centring  on a protagonist’s varied attempts to find The One, Wild Is Love? Wakeman does recognise the importance of black concept albums, from Parliament’s Mothership Connection to Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but his history suggest black concept albums begin with Gaye, who is building on the work of his white predecessors.

It takes rather longer for Wakeman to pay his respects to any conceptual woman. 53 minutes into this 59 minute documentary, we discover our first concept album by a woman: Lady Gaga’s The Fame. The only other female artist discussed is Laura Marling, who, perhaps not coincidentally, is also a talking head on the documentary. That’s two albums by women out of the 25 discussed, given cursory attention in the last five minutes of the programme. It feels like a brief footnote in the epic history of conceptual albums.

Jean Shepherd’s Songs of a Love Affair is perhaps the earliest example of a female-led concept album that springs to my mind. A chronological narrative work exploring the breakdown of a marriage following an affair, it was released in 1956: Shepherd has a whole two years on Sinatra. Perhaps this is a little obscure, but far more mainstream and influential works are equally passed over: from themed covers albums like Mavis Staples’ duet record Boy Meets Girl to more conventionally conceptual works.

The Seventies was a decade that did not solely belong to pasty men rambling about fantasy worlds. Female-fronted concept albums flourished, from Manhole by Grace Slick, conceived as a soundtrack to a non-existent movie of the same name (1974) and Joni Mitchell’s mediations on travel in Hejira (1976), to Bjork’s debut, an Icelandic covers album (1977), and Heart’s Dog & Butterfly (1978).

The Eighties were no different, featuring gems like Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm (1985), which pulled a single track into a wild variety of different songs; the Japanese distorted vocal experiment Fushigi by Akina Nakamori (1986), and Kate Bush’s playful faithfulness to A and B sides of a record, producing “The Ninth Wave” as a kind of mini concept album on Hounds of Love (1985).

Wakeman skips over the Nineties in his programme, arguing that conceptual works felt hackneyed and uncool at this time; but the decade is peppered with women making thematically unified works from Madonna’s Erotica (1992) to Hole’s mediations on physical beauty and trauma, Live Through This (1994) and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998).

Since then, women arguably led the field of conceptual albums, whether through the creation of alter egos in works like Marina and the Diamonds’ Electra Heart, Beyoncé’s I Am… Sasha Fierce or through focusing on a very specific theme, like Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow or in their storytelling, like Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown and Aimee Mann’s The Forgotten Arm. Wakeman includes no black women artists in his programme, but today, black women are making the most experimental and influential conceptual records in modern pop, from Janelle Monáe and Kelis to Erykah Badu, and, of course, Beyoncé. It’s no coincidence that Lemonade, which would have been considered an abstract conceptual album from a male artist, was immediately regarded as a confessional piece by most tabloids. This issue extends far beyond one documentary, embedded in the fabric of music writing even today.

Of course, concept album is a slippery term that is largely subjective and impossible to strictly define: many will not agree that all my examples count as truly conceptual. But in his programme, Wakeman laments that the phrase should be so narrowly defined, saddened that “the dreaded words ‘the concept album’ probably conjure up visions of straggly-haired rockers jabbering on about unicorns, goblins and the end of the world”. Unfortunately, he only confirms this narrative with a self-serving programme that celebrates his musical peers and friends, and ignores the pioneers who would bring variety and colour to his limited classification. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.