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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As it turns out, the Bake Off and the Labour party have a lot in common

And I'm not just talking about the fact they've both been left with a old, wrinkly narcissist.

I wonder if Tom Watson and Paul Hollywood are the same person? I have never seen them in the same room together – neither in the devil’s kitchen of Westminster, nor in the heavenly Great British Bake Off marquee. Now the Parliamentary Labour Party is being forced to shift to the ­political equivalent of Channel 4, and the Cake Meister is going with. As with the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, so with Bake Off: the former presenters have departed, leaving behind the weird, judgemental, wrinkly old narcissist claiming the high ground of loyalty to the viewers – I mean members.

Is the analogy stretched, or capable of being still more elasticised? Dunno – but what I do know is that Bake Off is some weird-tasting addictive shit! I resisted watching it at all until this season, and my fears were justified. When I took the first yummy-scrummy bite, I was hooked even before the camera had slid across the manicured parkland and into that mad and misty realm where a couple of hours is a long time . . . in baking, as in contemporary British politics. It’s a given, I know, that Bake Off is a truer, deeper expression of contemporary Britain’s animating principle than party, parliament, army or even monarch. It is our inner Albion, reached by crossing the stormy sound of our own duodenums. Bake Off is truer to its idea of itself than any nation state – or mythical realm – could ever be, and so inspires a loyalty more compelling.

I have sensed this development from afar. My not actually watching the programme adds, counterintuitively, to the perspicacity of my analysis: I’m like a brilliant Kremlinologist, confined to the bowels of Bletchley Park, who nonetheless sifts the data so well that he knows when Khrushchev is constipated. Mmm, I love cake! So cried Marjorie Dawes in Little Britain when she was making a mockery of the “Fatfighters” – and it’s this mocking cry that resounds throughout contemporary Britain: mmm! We love cake! We love our televisual cake way more than real social justice, which, any way you slice it, remains a pie in the sky – and we love Bake Off’s mixing bowl of ethnicity far more than we do a melting pot – let alone true social mobility. Yes, Bake Off stands proxy for the Britain we’d like to be, but that we can’t be arsed to get off our arses and build, because we’re too busy watching people bake cakes on television.

It was Rab Butler, Churchill’s surprise choice as chancellor in the 1951 Tory government, who popularised the expression “the national cake” – and our new, immaterial national cake is a strange sort of wafer, allowing all of us who take part in Paul’s-and-Mary’s queered communion to experience this strange transubstantiation: the perfect sponge rising, as coal is once more subsidised and the railways renationalised.

Stupid, blind, improvident Tom Watson, buggering off like that – his battles with the fourth estate won’t avail him when it comes to the obscurity of Channel 4. You’ll find yourself sitting there alone in your trailer, Tom, neatly sculpting your facial hair, touching up your maquillage with food colouring – trying to recapture another era, when goatees and Britannia were cool, and Tony and Gordon divided the nation’s fate along with their polenta. Meanwhile, Mel and Sue – and, of course, Mary – will get on with the serious business of baking a patriotic sponge that can be evenly divided into 70 million pieces.

That Bake Off and the Labour Party should collapse at exactly the same time suggests either that the British oven is too cold or too hot, or that the recipe hasn’t been followed properly. Mary Berry has the charisma that occludes charisma: you look at her and think, “What’s the point of that?” But then, gradually, her quiet conviction in her competence starts to win you over – and her judgements hit home hard. Too dense, she’ll say of the offending comestible, her voice creaking like the pedal of the swing-bin that you’re about to dump your failed cake in.

Mary never needed Paul – hers is no more adversarial a presenting style than that of Mel and Sue. Mary looks towards a future in which there is far more direct and democratic cake-judging, a future in which “television personality” is shown up for the oxymoron it truly is. That she seems to be a furious narcissist (I wouldn’t be surprised if either she’s had a great deal of “work”, or she beds down in a wind tunnel every night, so swept are her features) isn’t quite as contradictory as you might imagine. Out there on the margins of British cookery for decades, baking cakes for the Flour Advisory Board (I kid you not), taking a principled stand on suet, while the entire world is heading in one direction, towards a globalised, neoliberal future of machine-made muffins – she must have had a powerful ­degree of self-belief to keep on believing in filo pastry for everyone.

So now, what will emerge from the oven? Conference has come and gone, and amateur bakers have banged their heads against the wall of the tent: a futile exercise, I’m sure you’ll agree. Will Jeremy – I’m sorry, Mary – still be able to produce a show-stopper? Will Mel and Sue and Angela and Hilary all come sneaking back, not so much shriven as proved, so that they, too, can rise again? And what about poor Tom – will he try to get a Labour Party cookery show of his own going, despite the terrible lack of that most important ingredient: members?

It’s so hard to know. It could be that The Great British Bake Off has simply reached its sell-by date and is no longer fit for consumption. Or it could be that Tom is the possessor of his alter ego’s greatest bête noire, one as fatal in politics as it is in ­bakery, to whit: a soggy bottom. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.