An interview with One Man, Two Guvnors director Walt Jones
A fairly new play, One Man, Two Guvnors by Richard Bean, premiered in 2011 at London’s National Theatre and starred actor James Corden, who reprised the role of Francis Henshall in 2012 on Broadway. The English comedian had won many awards for the comedic TV show Gavin and Stacy (2007-2010), and based on that performance, “One Man” was written with him in mind.
CSU Theatre Professor Walt Jones saw the full English cast of “One Man” on Broadway in what amounts to a fresh take on Servant with Two Masters, a 1743 Italian comedia by playwright Carlo Goldini about a fellow who manages to work for two employers without letting either of them know.
The original production of “One Man,” directed by Nicholas Hytner, was staged on a proscenium — a framed, flat-front stage. With all that a proscenium provides from the aspect of consistent audience angles, as opposed to the thrust stage format of the University Theatre at the University Center for the Arts, staging this production has required ingenuity to match the script.
We sat down with Jones to find out more about the CSU production of the play, which opens on Friday, Feb. 15 at the UCA. The following are the director’s own words:
Staging the show
It has become a turntable show, which is a way to get scenery on and off the stage really quickly, but this is really complicated, actually, because we have two turntables. When Roger [Hanna] first interviewed for his position at CSU, he said, “The only thing funnier than one revolving door is two revolving doors,” so I knew what I was getting into when Roger took over the show [as set designer].
There are lots of scenes, and the turntables help us go back to scenes and jump ahead to other scenes. The set is like a train of thought, and it’s a runaway train. It’s pretty extensive but for a play that is on two turntables, it comes with the turf. I knew what to expect.
It was Gavin and Stacy that secured Corden as the original lead in this play because the characters are not dissimilar and Corden is a great physical comedian — this is a very physical farce — there’s a lot of falling down, door slamming, a food fight, and people getting hit in the face with a cricket bat. There are audience members that are brought up on the stage and a lot of whispering, telling them what NOT to do. It just makes it more fun for the audience, but I suggest that people who don’t want to get involved in the play, per se, stay away from the front few rows. You will be made a fool of, but at least you’ll be made a fool by a fool, because Francis is a fool.
The pace is super-fast and never stops. It’s all rapid-fire lines and meaningful stares at the audience. “Look downstage, look downstage,” I keep saying. There’s lot of mugging … a bad name for a good thing.
It is a typical, well-made play. It’s just what the poster says, a classic British farce. There are a lot of people who are nuts, and they are way stupider than you think they could ever be. Everyone is a little bent — it’s a big-deal happy ending but there are pratfalls that you can’t believe — it’s definitely slapstick.
The actors have an appetite for it being funny. They are still breaking up while they rehearse it, which is actually a good sign. There will come a time very soon where it’s not funny to anybody and the whole production starts to despair. And then an audience comes in and you realize it’s still as funny as you thought it was. I think I have a pretty good sense of humor — wacky, really — so if it makes me laugh, it will make at least three-quarters of the audience laugh. By that measure, we’ll win them over.
Pulling off the stunts
We hired theatre alum Brian Connolly to do the physical stuff. In England, in the production that moved to Broadway, there was a person who was credited as co-director who was just the physical comedy director because that’s how much is in there — everything you can imagine — and it instills in the audience that great schadenfreude of, “Boy am I glad that I’m not up there — I’m glad that isn’t happening to me!” That’s what’s so funny about it.
I don’t want to give anything away, but Brian has to be pulled away from the danger because he’s willing to try anything, like diving off the stage into holes. Steven Workman [CSU Theatre technical director] is very cautious, but Brian has a gift for teaching the students how to do these kinds of things. I’m grateful to have him around.
‘Innit’ good to do accents?
Oh yeah. We have a “dialectition” named Paul Meier. He’s a Brit and teaches accents at the University of Kansas. He does movies and works with a lot of big names. Anyway, he voiced the entire play for every character and posted MP3s, and he included lessons on what the signature sounds of Brighton would be, or posh London, of Cockney, and of Manchester. The students are really getting it because they had something to listen to.
The dialect is written into the rhythm of the play. It’s kind of hard for a Brit playwright to not play up the dialects. Like “innit” means “isn’t it?” and “couldn’t it?” but also means “are you crazy?” It means a whole bunch of things, just like the Italian-American “fuhgeddaboudit” could mean anything.
Set in the 1960s
The costumes are very much 1963; in fact, one character is supposed to look like Ringo Starr — Beatle brow and all — being chased by fans in “A Hard Day’s Night.” There are predictions about having a woman at 10 Downing Street some day, and there’s a vintage portrait of the queen and a joke about that. It’s all very ’60s.
The costume designer is sophomore Hannah Garcia. She is a fantastic designer and draws so beautifully. She’s able to really convey the feel and the attitudes to the students. This is her first big production as designer, and it’s huge.
If you see A Hard Day’s Night and you see how wacko the Beatles were, all the running around fits the comedia prototype. Our dramaturg put up photos, and the actors have studied those film clips. We’re using 60s music like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones as transition music, which should help the audience with the period.
Director was in for a surprise
I think the actors were pretty afraid of it when they first auditioned. They wanted to be in it because it is so funny, but they were really shy about sticking their necks out. But this kind of play, you have to stick your neck out from the beginning; there’s no hiding and no trying to save yourself from looking foolish, because everyone is foolish!
Every single student is funnier than anyone thought. I keep saying, “I didn’t know you were so funny.” This is a great crew and they’re really game. They’re still breaking up over each other’s performances. Even Corden, in the show I saw, plays it like the other actors are cracking him up. It feels like improv but it really isn’t, and he pulled that off. Audiences love that kind of backstage feel to a show, especially after years of Saturday Night Live and those actors like Jimmy Fallon and Will Ferrell, who were golden most of the time, but when they did break, they really broke.
While I’ll attempt to temper it, I’m sure the actors will continue to break each other up as things occur to them that they’ve not done before, and they’ll try it in front of the audience for the first time. That’s always a surprise and fun and I encourage that in rehearsals, so it’s my fault they are breaking up, really.
Everyone appreciates a good laugh
It is pretty much a family-friendly play. There are a couple of off-color jokes, but I think they’ll zing over a kid’s head. There’s enough Looney Tunes-style falling down that will keep kids entertained, I think. There’s enough laughs to go around for everyone!
Everything that you can imagine that can be stuck in a play is in this play, and it really is faithful to the old comedia genre. This play is dying to be produced. You read it and you imagine it and you can’t wait to see it. I can’t wait!
The show runs Feb. 15, 16, 21, 22, 23 at 7:30 p.m., with matinees on Feb. 17 and Feb. 24 at 2 p.m. Tickets to the production are available online at csuartstickets.com and at the UCA ticket office. Prices are no charge for CSU students with ID and $10 for the public; fees apply.