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)
SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The paintings designed to better sculpture

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour, as a new exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery shows.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle