Wednesday 4 February 2015

One Man, Two Guvnors is a manic Brit stitch

Background uptake : What is normally summer fluff and silliness is now on stage in Vancouver, all aflower in a pre-Spring burst. Over-the-top slapstick nonsense is the hallmark of this Richard Bean original from 2011 that sends patrons skittering out the exits hooting and frothing.

No question British humour may grate on some thanks to its sex-o-manic tittery, but compared to most North American comedy it nevertheless thrills in its verbal inventiveness and verve rather than just be put out there to mildly amuse us heh-heh-heh-blah-blah. 

If this premise resonates, then OM2G is a laugh track you simply cannot avoid, nor should you. The script has been snitched by Bean from Carlo Goldini's 1743 commedia del arte set in Italy, but it's been repackaged and carted off to 1963 Brighton, England for its resurrection. As a seaside resort and a minor Boardwalk Empire, Brighton was going to seed even back then. While gangsters and their rackets and their molls ran slightly amok there under the bobbies' radar, some innocent mop-tops down the road called the Beatles were providing teens Yeah-yeah-yeah! cheek to taunt their parents with. First-world life was on a cultural cusp for sure.

OM2G plot quicky : You don't go to OM2G for the plotline. It's a twisty-sugary-pretzel-tail snackery of fakes and phonies galore. All about a goofy food-hound down-on-his-luck, a lovable lout named Francis Henshall. He winds up as a working class Brit step-&-fetch-it for two different and decidedly-opposed masters. Neither knows of Francis's duplicity. 

One master is a dead homosexual gangster named Roscoe who's being played in drag by his twin sister Rachel. The other master is a Brit boys school snob named Stanley who's Rachel's lover. Just a week before Stanley stabbed ol' Roscoe to death in a snit. So Rachel is now "covering" for her lover Stanley, lit.& fig., twin brother be damned. The late Roscoe, however, had previously been paired off by parental pre-arrangement to marry mobster Charlie Clench's daughter Pauline who actually loves Clench's lawyer's son Allan, a histrionic actor wannabe. You can follow all this nonsense for pre-Alzheimer calisthenics, no other useful purpose really.

WYSIWYG in this zany show : OM2G is vaudeville, English pantomime, cabaret, melodrama, music hall burlesque, and audience-involving improvisation all in one kaleidescopic piece. Its parts taken individually probably exceed the impact of the whole. Meaning that i.m.o. Act I has laggy & over-drawn-out moments that make one wonder on occasion at the "point" of the play. Until one flips out of such a presumptuous and ratiocinative state and just accepts the premise that WYSIWYG and the fact that vaudeville, English pantomime, cabaret, melodrama, music hall burlesque and improvisation taken together are the "point" regardless of narrative or dramatic arc deficits.

As Francis Henshall, Andrew McNee turns in a tour de force peformance of breathless manic exuberance that was utterly exhausting, vicariously. But the humour always outs along the way, McNee's high-pitched frantic giggle ringing in my ears still, three days later. E.g. gangster dad Charlie (Gerry Mackay) has a bookkeeper named Dolly (Cailin Stadnyk) who is a statuesque ginger-haired beauty. Francis is smitten and pirouettes around her gaily. But he can't reveal his doeppelganger identity. Still, on & on he flirts. And Dolly winks as she announces to the audience. "I don't know what he's after, but if he carries on like this he'll get it."

When we meet killer / lover Stanley Stubbers (Martin Happer), he reveals his snobbish past : "I'm boarding school trained. I'm happy to have a chair, a bed and no one pissing in my face." Francis doesn't disagree. "You went to boarding school where they held masturbation relay races!" On the subject of marriage he proclaims : "Love passes through marriage faster than shit through a small dog!"

Much of the comic clownery of Act 1 stems from Francis trying to serve a multi-course gourmet dinner to each of his two guvnors and their guests in opposing dining rooms. With the assistance of a couple of waiters -- a Downton Abbey downstairs young snoot (Anton Lipovetsky) as well as the scene-stealing dottery and ancient war vet Alfie (Andrew Cownden) -- Francis feeds the guvnors bits and pieces of what he himself cannot manage to gorf down with his grubby hands to stave off his insatiable food jones.

Watered, fed, satiated at last by the end of the first act, Francis turns to the love interests of all the silly pompous poseurs on stage in the second act to pull the piece together at last. This is how commedia del arte worked back when, now too.

Along the way there are repeated appearances by a skiffle band. It plays before the play starts, during scene changes and ahead of Act II. From washboard knuckles and banjos, the group called The Craze morphs to Beatle-y style charts along the way, though drummer Spencer Schoening, unlike Ringo Starr, does not sound like he's chopping wood with a dull axe. Wowza!

Musical director of the show Anton Lipovetsky does the banjo and lead guitar riffs, the two of them headed by a power talent in Scott Perrie as lead singer, joined ably by Matthew J. Bake on bass. Terrific sounds every scene of the way from this group (named, Benjamin Brantley of the NYT advises, after the Kray brothers who were once London's version of Al Capone Ltd. and equally nasty.).

Production values : Sight gags, physical comedy and slapstick pratfalls -- Stadnyk parodying McNee was stupendous! -- abound in this production by Director David Mackay. Virtually everyone gets a chance to play an instrument and have a moment's spot. Lawyer Harry Dangle (Andrew Wheeler) on xylophone; Happer squawking some antic Ooh-gah! car horns on a pep rally rack; Cownden mouthing a bluesy harp; master chef Lloyd Boanteng (Tom Picket) finger-synching on a Carribbean oil drumhead. All of these bits are entertaining music hall stuff in their own right, no question. And who cares if they make virtually no contribution to the show's dramatic continuity. Fun stuff regardless !

Still, my only beef about the staging would be Director Mackay's seemingly inevitable fart highlight. Fact is Francis starts Act II extolling the joys and virtues of a good smoke after eating. Almost thematically, his puff turns to a drool toward sex where an after-puff on a fag is also common. Somehow in the midst of this there's an amplified fart : it was superfluous and dramatically off-key in context.

As hyped-up amateur actor Allan Dangle, Ryan Beil was priceless. His zen-take on London buses being buses and musing on what "drives" them and motivates them and appeals to them emotionally and their social milieu connections was just choice. 

Second mention must be made of Andrew Cownden whose Laugh-In Artie Johnson knock-off get-up, Einstein hair and impish pacemaker walks-&-scoots and door-slam take-downs and wall-bounces were all spot-on, spot-on. Kudos! writ large to all creators for that exquisite team effort. This was playmaking at its best.

Set Designer Amir Ofek structured a clever and imaginative set whose double-swinging 10-foot doors on opposite walls worked deliciously well for quick disappearing acts, particularly the dining room sequences but throughout the show, too.

The production overall would perhaps have been too big for ACT's Granville Island stage, agreed, but the play's set-back at the Stanley made much of the action too distant from the crowd and lines at times too hard to hear up in the balcony. Let's muse and dream : an orchestra pit scissored-proscenium-platform would have been perfect to bring the action up close and personal to the folks out front. Alas! realities.

Who gonna like : Tired of t.v. re-runs of Breaking Bad, Netflix binging, and find you have no time in the least for CBC's latest groaner Schitts Creek? OM2G is comic relief for what ails you visually, aurally, and emotionally in a world whose daily news drone of doom is disquieting and unsettling if not downright threatening altogether. This is a troupe well-blocked, well-rehearsed, well-voiced and well-suited to bring tears -- the right kind -- to your eyes like no recent show I can think of.

Particulars.  Creator Richard Bean. Music & Songs by Grant Olding. At the Stanley Theatre stage, 11th & Granville Street, through February 22nd. Phone 604.687.1644 for schedules and tickets.

Production crew.  Director David Mackay.  Musical Director Anton Lipovetsky.  Costume Designer Nancy Bryant.  Set Designer Amir Ofek.  Lighting Designer Robert Sondergaard.  Sound Designer Murray Price.  Stage Manager Angela Beaulieu.  Assistant Stage Manager Peter Jotkus.  Assistant Director Melissa Poll.  Assistant to the Director Cory Haas.  Apprentice Stage Manager Sandra Drag.

Actors.  Matthew J. Baker. Ryan Beil. Lauren Bowlder. Andrew Cownden. Martin Happer. Anton Lipovetsky. Gerry Mackay. Andrew McNee. Scott Perrie. Tom Pickett. Spencer Schoening. Cailin Stadnyk. Celine Stubel. Andrew Wheeler.


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