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Updated: Jun 20, 2020

Few theatergoing experiences are as joyously liberating as being part of a packed house roaring with laughter at low comedy.

“One Man, Two Guvnors,” a gut-busting adaptation by Richard Bean, with music by Grant Olding, from the uproarious 18th-century Italian comedy by Carlo Goldoni, “The Servant of Two Masters,” made its La Habra Theater Guild debut Friday night at La Habra High School’s Pitlockry Hall, and will be playing there September 21st through the 29th.

Combining the original's classic structure with Anglo-Saxon verbal and physical humor, ”One Man, Two Guvnors” is both diabolical and seraphic, dirty-minded and utterly innocent (but - ideal escapism for these anxious times). With its splendidly silly script, Co-Directors Bobby Gonzalez and Brian Johnson’s touch of genius produces a rich, slow-spreading smile over their audience, like butter melting in a skillet over a low flame.

Upon arrival, the stage is completely overhauled with one massive Union Jack flag, and for the first few minutes, an odd assortment of colorful characters appears in a scene as if assembled in someone's living room, bantering in gangster-like manner (picture the film "Bugsy Malone”). But when Francis Henshall (Josh Garberg) enters the room, strolls around without saying anything, then stops and looks at a large skewed portrait of the Queen and says “Who's this?” - That’s when things start to get interesting, and without you even realizing it, he slowly begins to wrap the audience around his pudgy finger.

Actually, describing the plot of this play is probably harder than explaining the difference between right and wrong. But let me try. It's 1963 and the location is Brighton. Two underworld gangs are about to be united via marriage, and we find our incessantly hungry hero, Francis, suddenly finding himself employed by two different bosses. His first guvnor is Roscoe Crabbe, a revered London gangster who has apparently come to Brighton to claim money owed to him by his fiance’s father, local mobster Charlie “The Duck” Clench (Bavin Martin).

However, it soon becomes clear that Roscoe is, in fact, his dizygotic twin sister Rachel Crabbe (Veronica McFarlane) in disguise. Roscoe was killed by Rachel’s boyfriend, Stanley Stubbers (Gabriel Liron), and she wants the money to flee the country with Stanley. Unfortunately for Francis, his second boss just happens to be the snooty toff Stanley, who does not know that Rachel is in Brighton. Figuring he can earn money from both guvnors, Francis schemes to keep Rachel and Stanley apart. Neither boss is aware of the other, as Francis bounces between them like a shuttlecock.

Stanley is hiding from the police, waiting to be reunited with Rachel. Complicating events still further is Charlie’s arrangement for his somewhat dim-witted daughter, Pauline Clench (Mercy Thornton), to be married to Roscoe, despite her preference for over-the-top amateur actor, Alan Dangle (Jeremy Percy). As Francis’s world plunges into further mayhem with his moonlighting, his attempts to woo heel-wiggling Dolly (Charlie Leonard, playing Clench’s bookkeeper) goes awry and he now must prove to her that he is a good, honest man. Believing Stanley to be dead, Rachel finally ditches her disguise but is soon reunited with her lover. Francis then decides to take Dolly on holiday to Majorca, Pauline and Alan are again united, and Rachel and Stanley decide to marry and turn themselves in to the police.

But what makes the show a triumph is its combination of visual and verbal comedy, becoming a vehicle for running wonderfully amok — and taking an audience along with them. Whatever it is, it was a real challenge not to laugh out loud at the antics. A lot. Driven in its first half by the peckish desperation of freelance flunky Francis, who serves as the virtuoso ringmaster, this banquet of slapstick farce and verbal jousting brings with it an ingenious balance between meticulous planning and what plays like anarchic spontaneity.

Garberg, as Francis, is an inspired clown, and as long as he – and Gabriel Liron, as his tall, toffee-nosed guvnor Stubbers, and Katie Christing as the shaky octogenarian Alfie, hard of hearing and nearly blind, are onstage, the mirth is nonstop. This is especially true of the play’s most famous dinner scene, as Francis attempts to serve his two guvnors dinner simultaneously. But what is extraordinarily dicey is, during Francis’s many attempts to maintain his secret, he often breaks the fourth wall, enlisting help from the audience and frequently bringing unsuspecting audience members up on to the stage to do his job for him. Those interactions with members of the audience made everyone in the theater squeal with delight.

As in the original Italian version, the character is driven by omnivorous hunger, and it is amusing to see Francis even chewing a letter in desperation. Even better is the moment when he is asked by his pneumatic doxy whether he prefers eating or making love, he suddenly becomes a study in concentration before he replies, "Tough one that, innit."

Yet while Garberg is central, there is a rich host of noteworthy character performances, although none of whom could probably win a Good Citizen Award. You can tell that the cast is relishing every single moment with their opportunity to create larger-than-life characters. Percy as the “wannabe” actor is a brilliant compendium of old-school theatrical mannerisms and gets big laughs as he uses large bravado with his anger. Ms. McFarlane as the energetic, male-attired Rachel Crabbe has a wonderful macho swagger as well as a wicked snarl, and Ms. Leonard gives full value to Francis's well-upholstered Brighton belle. Gabriel Taylor is perfectly cast as Lloyd Boateng, Charlie’s ex-con Jamaican friend turned pub owner. And Hannah Rhode plays Head Waiter Gareth and virtually all other ensemble characters in the show with relative ease.

Alex Martinez, cast as Harry Dangle, is remarkable as Alan’s father and unscrupulous attorney to Clench. And, just for fun, there is even a prefatory skiffle session during scene transitions, as well as select cast members performing musical interludes, by the offstage 4-piece unit, called “The Band,” featuring Rudy De Anda, Will Errett, Trey Everett (also serving as Music Director), and Danny Kimes.

Choreography was coordinated by Annie Lavin. Scenic Design by Jim Oxley and Andrea Oxley. Costumes by Tana Carmichael and Lighting Design by Matt Mankiewicz. Stage managed by Zoe Kinne.

Three performances remain: This Thursday evening at 7pm, plus two Saturday performances…a matinee at 1:30pm and an evening performance at 7pm. This show is Highly Recommended, and a guarantee you will laugh your head off! Tickets here:

Chris Daniels Arts Reviewer

National Youth Arts

The Show Report


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