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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Why do the words “soup, swoop, loop de loop” come to mind every time I lift a spoon to my lips?

It’s all thanks to Barry and Anita.

A while ago I was lending a friend the keys to our house. We keep spare keys in a ceramic pot I was given years ago by someone who made it while on an art-school pottery course. “That’s er . . . quite challenging,” the friend said of the pot.

“Is it?” I replied. “I’d stopped noticing how ugly it is.”

“Then it’s a grunty,” she said.

“A what?” I asked.

“A grunty. It’s something you have in your house that’s hideous and useless but you’ve stopped noticing it completely, so it’s effectively invisible.”

I was much taken with this idea and realised that as well as “grunties” there are also “gruntyisms”: things you say or do, though the reason why you say or do them has long since been forgotten. For example, every time we drink soup my wife and I say the same thing, uttered in a strange monotone: we say, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop.” How we came to say “soup, swoop, loop de loop” came about like this.

For a married couple, the years between your mid-thirties and your late forties might be seen as the decade of the bad dinner party. You’re no longer looking for a partner, so the hormonal urge to visit crowded bars has receded, but you are still full of energy so you don’t want to stay in at night, either. Instead, you go to dinner parties attended by other couples you don’t necessarily like that much.

One such couple were called Barry and Anita. Every time we ate at their house Barry would make soup, and when serving it he would invariably say, “There we are: soup, swoop, loop de loop.” After the dinner party, as soon as we were in the minicab going home, me and Linda would start drunkenly talking about what an arse Barry was, saying to each other, in a high-pitched, mocking imitation of his voice: “Please do have some more of this delicious soup, swoop, loop de loop.” Then we’d collapse against each other laughing, convincing the Algerian or Bengali taxi driver once again of the impenetrability and corruption of Western society.

Pretty soon whenever we had soup at home, Linda and I would say to each other, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop,” at first still ridiculing Barry, but eventually we forgot why we were saying it and it became part of the private language every couple develop, employed long after we’d gratefully ceased having soupy dinners with Barry and Anita.

In the early Nineties we had an exchange student staying with us for a year, a Maori girl from the Cook Islands in the southern Pacific. When she returned home she took the expression “soup, swoop, loop de loop” with her and spread it among her extended family, until finally the phrase appeared in an anthropological dissertation: “ ‘Soup swoop, loop de loop.’ Shamanistic Incantations in Rarotongan Food Preparation Rituals” – University of Topeka, 2001. 

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt