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Playwright Richard Bean on One Man, Two Guvnors

As One Man, Two Guvnors returns to the Theatre Royal, we talk to the man who wrote it

JOHAN PERSSON A scene from One Man, Two Guvnors by Richard Bean
A scene from One Man, Two Guvnors by Richard Bean

Next week One Man, Two Guvnors returns to the Theatre Royal and, quite frankly, I’m amazed. OK, it has been a big hit for the National Theatre, playing to full houses in the West End, on Broadway and on three tours of the UK... but the mess!

Honestly, so much gloop got hurled around last time that you feared for the fabric of the building. Audience members got smothered from head to foot in heaven knows what as the cast made panto stars Danny and Clive look like fastidious amateurs.

I’m kidding, of course. Richard Bean’s play, a madcap adaptation of 18th Century playwright Carlo Goldini’s Il servitore di due padroni (The Servant of Two Masters), is fast, furious and extremely funny.

I wouldn’t mind betting that many of those who caught the play in Newcastle on its last UK tour will be back for more.

In 2012 it was Rufus Hound playing Francis Henshall, the hapless main character who is permanently famished and unwittingly finds himself trying to carry out the orders of two demanding bosses.

He took on the role crafted with James Corden in mind and the garishly patterned socks and suit have now been passed on to Gavin Spokes.

But amid the mayhem and the whirligig of touring, one man has remained the same: Richard Bean, the writer, whose name is currently attached to all sorts of interesting projects.

I caught up with him just before he was due to head off to the Latitude Festival in Suffolk.

“Erica’s got a show on there,” explained. That’s Erica Whyman who used to run Northern Stage and is now number two at the Royal Shakespeare Company.

The couple’s little daughter, Ruby, crying in the background, seemed keen for the family to be on their way. But Richard just had time to talk about this very well-known play and other things that make him seem currently ubiquitous.

“I was asked to do it,” he said candidly.

“Nicholas Hytner (outgoing director of the National Theatre) was looking for a role for James Corden and the National Theatre script department came up with The Servant of Two Masters. It’s one of the few plays in the canon that has a leading part for a fat bloke.”

Hytner and Corden, he added, had worked together on The History Boys so no disrespect was intended and none taken.

“I wanted to set the play in the Second World War or just after, when there was rationing, because I thought that would be a good reason for him being so hungry all the time.

“Nick didn’t like that because he thought it would be a bit drab colour-wise and he also wanted slightly more loud music. We had a bit of an argument and then I said I wanted to do it with skiffle.

“Nick Hytner and I are the same age so we remember those comedy songs of the early 60s like My Old Man’s a Dustman.”

So it was that One Man, Two Guvnors takes us to Brighton in the dawning years of the 1960s with gangsters and conmen on every corner and people like Francis required to live on their wits. A skiffle band serenades audience members as they take their seats.

I said it looked from all the rampant slapstick as if much of the action emerged from actors mucking about in the rehearsal room.

“Most of it is on the page, to be honest,” said Richard.

“I’m not just bigging myself up. We did a fair amount of work in rehearsal but if it worked it ended up in the script. It’s quite a structured piece in that sense and, while we like people to imagine there’s a lot of improvisation involved, there’s less than you think.”

The play, with its tours and overseas runs, has become “a bit of a machine”, he suggested. It’s certainly a very well-oiled and successful one.

Richard Bean is 58 and grew up in Hull. He worked in a bread plant after leaving school – it gave him the material for his first play, Toast, in 1999 – and then studied social psychology at Loughborough University.

He worked for a while as an occupational psychologist but then something funny happened.

“I was a stand-up for six years in the early 1990s,” he said.

“I wasn’t the best stand-up in the world, but I wasn’t the worst either. Time Out said I should have my own TV show but in the same article they said Harry Hill should have his own TV show.

“After six years it kind of plateaued. I didn’t have any ambition to go on TV. I preferred writing.”

Evidently it was the right decision. After Toast the plays came in a rush, one a year at first and then two. Smack Family Robinson was premiered at Live Theatre in Newcastle back in 2003 (giving Laura Norton one of her early professional roles) and Toast was staged there the following year, having been relocated from Humberside to Tyneside.

The latest play, Great Britain, was premiered at the National Theatre in June with Billie Piper playing a newspaper editor called Paige Britain.

The play, due to transfer to the West End in September, is a tightly-plotted satire about the press, the police and politics. Highly topical, you might think, and indeed the opening was delayed because of a certain court case involving high-profile media people caught up in the phone hacking scandal.

But coming up soon – “There is a coming together this summer and autumn of quite a lot of stuff,” said Richard – is a new play called Pitcairn which is due to open at the Chichester Festival Theatre in August before transferring to Shakespeare’s Globe.

“It’s the story of what happened to the Mutiny on the Bounty mutineers after the mutiny. They wanted to live on Pitcairn Island with some Tahitian women and it’s a sort of Lord of the Flies-type story,” said Richard.

“Max Stafford-Clark (founder of Out of Joint Theatre Company) is fascinated by the story and had always wanted to do a play about it.

“It is a great story, but it often stops with the mutiny. My play starts after the mutiny when the mutineers land on Pitcairn Island.”

The famous mutiny took place in 1789 when Fletcher Christian, a seaman from Cockermouth in Cumbria, led an uprising on HMS Bounty which was bound for Tahiti to load up with breadfruit plants. The men seized control from the ship’s commander, William Bligh.

“In the sense that it’s a bit like Lord of the Flies (William Golding’s famous novel) I think there might be a few laughs, but not many,” said Richard.

“Because I did stand-up that’s one of the things in my toolbag as a writer, but here I’m not under pressure to have five jokes on every page, which is a relief. I’m allowed to make people cry as well as laugh.”

The other thing Richard has on the cards is a musical version of Made In Dagenham, the film (released in 2010) about a strike by female sewining machinists at the Ford Motor Company in 1968.

The musical, directed by Rupert Goold and starring Gemma Arterton, is due to open in October at London’s Adelphi Theatre.

Richard has written the book, while the music and lyrics are by David Arnold and Richard Thomas respectively.

It’s Richard’s first musical. It’s what he calls “product” because he is working on it as a hired gun.

“You’re working to orders,” he said. “I wrote the book first and some of the songs came out of that, so I can take a bit of credit for that.”

Of course, the history of musicals is littered with high-profile casualties. Most of them are expensive to put on and many have fallen victim to cutting critics.

Richard seemed relaxed about it. “Les Mis got terrible reviews, so you can always hang on to that,” he rationalised. At which point Ruby intervened and it was time to head for Latitude.

One Man, Two Guvnors – complete with mess – runs at the Theatre Royal from Monday to Saturday. Box office: 08448 112121 or visit www.theatreroyal.co.uk


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