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Review: One Man, Two Guvnors at Liverpool Playhouse ****

Richard Bean’s spirited adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s classic commedia dell’arte play The Servant of Two Masters helped turn James Corden into a star on both sides of the Atlantic.

The story, a convoluted tale of murder, mistaken identity, money and, yes, serving not one but two masters, is the framework for a lot of general silliness and slapstick.

People, it seems, love a clown and Bean’s script – relocating the action from 18th Century Venice to 1960s Brighton – gives its protagonist Francis Henshall plenty of opportunity to pull off some painful looking pratfalls.

Physical clowning in a young man’ game.

Jordan Pearson – making his professional debut in this co-production from the Bolton Octagon, Theatre by the Lake and Everyman and Playhouse - throws himself around the stage with fearlessness as the hapless Henshall, a check-suited chancer driven by hunger and lust and with only a passing acquaintance with the truth.

Saying that, he’s not the only Arlecchino on stage. The gloriously anarchic (nay, lunatic) Basque-born Javier Marzan executes a series of gasp/laughter-inducing kamikaze stunts as Alfie, the octogenarian waiter at The Cricketers Arms, a pub ‘with food’ where much of the most riotous action unfolds.

It’s 1963. Beatlemania is raging but its predecessor skiffle is the soundtrack to the show, penned by Grant Olding and skilfully played by the actor-musicians, led by Matthew Ganley, to cover the various scene changes.

Above: The skiffle band. Top: Jordan Pearson as Francis Henshall. Photos by Pamela Raith

Dense-but-sweet Pauline Clench (Lauren Sturgess) has been betrothed to ne’er-do-well dad Charlie’s small-time gangster associate Roscoe Crabbe, but Roscoe’s violent and sudden demise has left her free to marry her true love, ‘actor’ Alan (Qasim Mahmood in delightfully thespy overdrive).

When the dead ‘Roscoe’ unexpectedly rocks up at their party with a hired heavy (Henshall) in tow, demanding the original engagement be upheld, it’s the signal for a series of increasingly improbable events.

Roscoe turns out to be his twin sister Rachel (Siobhan Athwal) in disguise, her boyfriend Stanley Stubbers (Laurie Jamieson) the one responsible for her brother’s death. Now the couple are on the run from the police and are heading for a grim life of sunshine, lager, barbecues and opera in Australia.

Above: Qasim Mahmood as 'actor' Alan Dangle. Photo by Pamela Raith

There are plenty of big characters in Bean’s script, and Jamieson, a devilish glint in his eye, has a whale of a time as Stanley, slyly pilfering every scene he appears in with a rip-roaring performance that would make Rik Mayall’s Lord Flashheart explode with eyebrow-raising envy.

The action is rather slow off the starting block, but once it moves from the Clench’s front room to the pub – and public sphere – it finds its feet and the protracted set piece involving Pearson’s ravenous Henshall (and Marzan’s Alfie) attempting to serve two simultaneous a la carte lunches is an absolute riot.

Chapeau to John Nicholson, Marzan’s fellow artistic director at the brilliant Peeploykus, who is this production’s physical comedy director.

In fact, there are very enjoyable performances from the entire 11-strong ensemble which also features Polly Lister whose liberated bookkeeper Dolly is a no-nonsense Scouser clad in suffragette colours.

Designer Colin Falconer has created a vibrant, citrus-hued two-storey seaside set and it’s nicely lit by Jane Lalljee.


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