Jasper Rees chats to One Man, Two Guvnors star Owain Arthur, during the play’s run at the Theatre Royal Haymarket.
Until a few weeks ago, there was only one answer to this: name the connection between James Corden and Wales. Gavin and Stacey, co-invented by Corden with Ruth Jones, found many of its laughs in the idea of two countries divided – with apologies to Cymru Cymraeg – by a common language. Corden partly got the idea for the Essex/Barry Island comedy from his experiences of schlepping up and down the M4 to visit a Welsh girlfriend. It made his name – in England as much as in Wales.
But there is now another answer. His name is Owain Arthur and he comes from Rhiwlas, just outside Bangor. Arthur has just taken over in the West End stage role recently vacated by Corden. Usually when something like this happens, the incoming performer must resign him or herself to an audience’s reduced expectations, often fed by the critics who, having gone into ecstasies the first time round, have greeted the second cast as something less than the Second Coming. It’s so much the worse if the new actor is several lightbulbs short in terms of celebrity gigawattage. And when he is entirely unknown…
There could easily have been tumbleweed blowing through the box office when One Man, Two Guvnors, an updating by playwright Richard Bean of Goldoni’s commedia dell’arte spoof The Servant of Two Masters, packed its original players off the Broadway. In the lead role of a chancer who finds himself taking orders, as the title explains, from a pair of bosses, Corden gave a wonderfully charismatic performance which more or less resuscitated his career that had wandered off into charmless self-parody. (Lesbian Vampires, anyone?) The play called for him to play one of the blunter tools in the box who must frequently address the audience, ad libbing where necessary, and sometimes enlist them in his plots. Directed by Nicholas Hytner, the play started at the National Theatre, after a short UK tour transferred to the Adelphi Theatre in the West End, and has now moved with its new cast to the Theatre Royal Haymarket.
I went along to the press night assuming that no one would do it better. And then about a third of the way through it occurred to me I was enjoying myself more than I had the first time round. And the reason for that is Owain Arthur. He is quite simply brilliant as Francis Henshall. He has the audience eating out of his palm from the moment he lobs a peanut up into the air and catches it in his mouth then, trying the same again, tumbles back over an armchair, only for the nut to be there on his tongue. One scene in which he picks a fight with himself is a little moment of physical genius. All the London critics have been seduced too. Even Corden was moved to tweet, ‘It’s yours now.’ It’s the most brilliant comic performance by a Welsh actor since Rhys Ifans stripped to his briefs in Notting Hill.
Arthur began understudying Corden in the autumn. To make it easier for him, it was decided to morph his Francis from a Cockney into a Welshman. ‘It’s quite a clever thing for Nick to ask me to do it as Welshman,’ Arthur explains, ‘because if you tried to get somebody that was similar to James then there would be more of a comparison and it could be distracting for an audience member to think, this guy is kind of like James Corden but he’s not James Corden. It doesn’t need a lot. Before I make the first entrance it’s explained that there’s some Welsh geezer from London and that’s it, all set up. When I speak to the audience for the first time, I talk about the Beatles singing in the Eisteddfod and that makes it completely blatant that he is a huge liar.’
The world is used to the concept of the Welsh actor who must travel a long way from his roots to achieve stardom. The tradition is that they are slightly closer to pin-up material. Owain Arthur, it can be safely predicted, will never be cast as the romantic lead: he’s less Romeo than Dromio (he played Shakespeare’s put-upon twin servants with twin masters from The Comedy of Errors at the Royal Exchange in Manchester). He is one of those actors with a funny frame, four-square with a hint of podge if not remotely as bulky as his predecessor. In front row parlance, Arthur is Gethin Jenkins to Corden’s Adam Jones.
He began acting early, landing the part of Aled Shaw in Rownd a Rownd at the age of 12. He did a nine-year stint. ‘He was a paper boy, a cheeky chappie who got involved in soap opera stuff.’ By the time he followed a well-trodden path from Wales to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in the City of London – previous North Walians who have made the same journey include Ifans and Bryn Terfel – he had never actually acted in English. ‘I was cacking myself. Just because I couldn’t connect to the words as I did with the Welsh language. Now I can because I speak it every day and I have to express how I feel. It was a struggle. The first year and parts of the second year was partially me getting to grips with the English language. That took a lot of my time.’
Since moving to London Welsh has remained Owain Arthur’s day-to-day language. ‘I’ve lived with Welsh people the whole time I’ve been in London. I speak Welsh all day long.’ He has even, he admits, spoken Welsh onstage, by mistake. ‘My parents came down to see me they heard me say something in Welsh when I was speaking to the audience. My brain does work in Welsh and very often I translate things in my head before I speak. I suppose when I was talking to the audience instead of saying ‘Alright’ I said ‘Iawn’. It was just a quick thing. And carried on.’
His first role on graduating was to take over a role in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys originated by none other than Corden. That is where Hytner, who also directed that play, will have first noticed a similarity. So it’s no coincidence that a few years later Owain Arthur was a natural choice to understudy Francis Henshall. He first went on in the role on 1 December, having had some advance warning and being aware that there would soon be permanent vacancy.
‘I was so nervous I couldn’t hear properly,’ he recalls. ‘All I could hear was my heart pumping. My mouth was so dry I’d drink some water and be dry again. There’s the pressure of getting everything right in order without making any mistakes. Then add another layer to maybe give it a bit of colour. Having to fit in with the original cast which I hadn’t rehearsed at all with. Then the fact that I had to improvise in front of 1,500 people also knowing that Nicholas Hytner, Richard Bean, the producers and casting directors of the National were watching me to see if they could cast me to take over. The word was that I was in the mix. It was the most public audition of my life.’
Most terrifyingly of all, he had never done any of the ad libbing. ‘When you do a comedy there is an extra person in the cast that you can’t rehearse with until the first night and that’s the audience. When I caught the peanut I started to relax.’
He heard that he’d passed the audition when it was only half complete: Hytner offered him the part in the interval of his first performance. ‘I was outside getting some air and Nick came up and said, ‘Listen, I think you’re doing a fantastic job, I’m really really pleased.’ I said, ‘Oh thank you very much.’ ‘Yes, I mean I’d love you to take over from James in March.’ My jaw just hit the deck. I didn’t know what to say. Nick saw that I couldn’t speak and just said, ‘Right, listen, I have to go. Good luck for the second act.’ I kept it to myself until I got to the bar late where someone gave me the permission to tell my friends and people in the cast.’
How many pints did he drink?
‘I really can’t remember.’