It’s easy to get bogged down by the minutia of live performance sometimes. Theatregoers expect to be challenged, provoked, disarmed, affected in some way by what they’re experiencing. Leaving an auditorium without learning something new about the world can feel like a disappointment. I know it because I can be one of those people. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course: when appropriate, theatre should definitely do all of those things. But we also sometimes forget that, ultimately, theatre should entertain. Throughout history, acts from Benny Hill to Peter Kay have proven that there will always be a place on our stages for people that just want to make you laugh and nothing else. If you do need further proof, though, go and watch One Man, Two Guvnors.
Torch Theatre’s version of the award-winning comedy opens in Milford Haven this week, exactly a year after BlackRAT Productions’ own very good rendition of the show. Narratively its all the same, of course – in the words of central character Francis, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. Borrowing from the best of British comedy, Richard Bean’s exceptional multi award-winning script is an organised mess of physical comedy, one-liners, clowning, innuendo, farce and stand-up. It’s outrageously funny when done right. It needs the right team to make it work, though, and that’s exactly what this has.
The only place to start when judging the play’s success is its performances. It’s impressive that, in an ensemble of twelve performers, not a single weak link exists. It’s a healthy mix of youth and experience, each a strong performer in their own right. It would be unfair to highlight one performance over another as they’re all so strong, but what really shines through is the chemistry between them. They are genuinely having fun on stage and its deeply infectious. The audience feed into that and, in the best possible way, the performance drifts into pantomime territory. They know the suitcase isn’t going to move. They know the door is going to hit Alfie in the face. They could pre-empt everything, probably, but it doesn’t make it any less funny or enjoyable. The audience are right there to the end, clapping and laughing along.
The real hero of this production, however, is Peter Doran. 2018 is Doran’s twentieth year as Artistic Director of Torch Theatre, and One Man, Two Guvnors may as well be a lifetime achievement award for that incredible milestone. Audiences will remember Doran for his scene-stealing cameos as decrepit waiter Alfie, but its his direction of the play that really needs praising. This isn’t an easy play to produce, what with the deliberate chaos, the frenetic pace and all the moving parts, sometimes literally. It all comes together beautifully, though. Sean Crowley’s set deliberately looks like it’s been made using cheap wood, a further homage to those end-of-pier comedies the play lampoons, while Helen Rodgers’ sixties costumes are appropriately outrageous. It all comes back to Doran, though – he’s the man with the final say, and he doesn’t put a foot wrong. Off-stage, anyway.
Torch Theatre also owes its audience a great gratitude. The theatre has cultivated a very strong local following over the years, with many of its audience members virtually growing up alongside it. Those people will be in the audience every night, their laughing just that bit louder, their applause ever so more sustained. That’s not to take anything away from the production as a whole – this will entertain audiences anywhere – but there’s nothing quite like performing in front of your home team. The creative team give it their all, and the familial crowd respond in kind. Theatre can be a lot of fun sometimes.