Choosing to produce One Man, Two Guvnors, a play by Richard Bean known as ‘the funniest show on the planet’, could have been an act of hubris. It’s the show that made James Corden. It’s the show that began at the National Theatre in 2011, played the West End and Broadway, and toured internationally for five years. It’s a show that depends on precise timing and great character acting. It’s also a musical with songs by Grant Olding, which the actors play and sing. But none of that deterred Lotte Wakeham, Bolton Octagon’s artistic director. It was a risk, but I’m delighted to tell you that she pulls it off.

It’s Brighton in 1963 and our hero Francis Henshall is working for gangster Roscoe Crabbe. The lowlife doesn’t pay him so, in a desperate attempt to eat, Francis gets another job with posh public school chap Stanley Stubbers. Stubbers and Crabbe give him similar tasks to do which, of course, he confuses, all the while trying to prevent them from meeting. Stubbers is in love, and I mean IN LOVE, with Crabbe’s twin sister Rachel. Meanwhile, Roscoe is promised to Pauline Clench, the daughter of local scrap merchant Charlie ‘The Duck’ Clench. But Pauline favours would-be thespian Alan Dangle, son of dodgy solicitor Harry Dangle. Alan would KILL for Pauline. You begin to see the possibilities, I’m sure.

And then there’s Dolly, Charlie’s fabulously upholstered bookkeeper, and Gareth, the grim headwaiter, and Lloyd, the bemused publican, and Alfie, the doddery new waiter.

This kind of play requires split-second timing and a certain kind of acting that allows the actors to talk directly to the audience in a knowing way. It also requires expert musicianship and great singing. They do all of this, in spades.

Everybody is excellent. Rodney Matthew gives us Charlie ‘The Duck’ with a permanent cockney wide-boy shrug that David Jason would envy. Lauren Sturgess as his daughter Pauline is so fantastically out of her depth throughout you want to give her a cuddle. Together with Matthew Ganley, who plays Gareth, they form the core of the excellent band. It’s a 60s skiffle group and to prove it Alexander Bean, who plays Lloyd Boateng, joins on the washboard.

Meanwhile, Karl Seth gives us Harry Dangle in a loud suit and a peculiar devotion to his idiot son Alan, Qasim Mahmood, a boy for whom one dramatic gesture will not suffice where two or three could be used. Polly Lister‘s Dolly is gloriously knowing, and comes into her own in act two when our hero’s appetites have switched from eating to the other thing.

One of the extraordinary features of the original was the number of ways it found of falling downstairs, including the actor playing the original Alfie who did it, got up and promptly did it again. I wondered if the Octagon could reproduce those wonderful comic moments. But it did. Javier Marzan who plays Alfie appears to be made of rubber.

In Stubbers, Laurie Jamieson has created one of the finest comic characters of British farce I have ever seen. Every bone in my body wanted to hate him, and yet he was just so loveable. And when you discover he’s in love with Rachel, played by Siobhan Athwal who also plays twin Roscoe and distinguishes them beautifully, you realise he’s really rather nice after all.

But in a terrific cast of highly skilled performers the plaudits have to go to Jordan Pearson as Francis Henshall. Henshall glues the whole thing together, and Pearson plays him with great skill. This is Pearson’s first job in theatre. He’s fresh out of college, has done a couple of telly things, and a couple of small parts in films. But none of that could prepare him for the extraordinary responsibility of this role.

Which brings me back to director Lotte Wakeham. I asked her how she’d had the confidence to cast him. She told me that he’d auditioned well and so she’d rung his tutor at college and asked if they thought he could do it, and they did. So she did. She took a risk, and it paid off. Jordan Pearson is clearly one to watch.

Every bit as good as the original, this is a great night out. The 60s music is a joy and you’ll laugh your socks off. The Octagon has entirely lived up to One Man, Two Guvnors’ reputation as ‘the funniest show on the planet’. And it is touring to Liverpool Playhouse and Theatre By The Lake in Keswick.

By Chris Wallis, Theatre Editor

Photos by Pamela Raith

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One Man, Two Guvnors is at Bolton Octagon until June 25, 2022. For more information, click here