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James Corden - One Man, Two Guvnors

James Corden bounds into the boardroom of the National Theatre on
London's South Bank at full pelt, like an overgrown puppy whose master
has just come home. Fifteen minutes earlier he'd had a packed matinee
crowd at the National's Lyttleton Theatre in the palm of his hand in
One Man Two Guvnors, Richard Bean's saucy seaside postcard style
adaptation of Goldoni's The Servant of Two Masters. Nicholas Hytner's
production, which opens in Edinburgh tonight, gives vent to a
rollickingly relentless performance by Corden as an on-the-make chancer
who, fired from his skiffle band, wheedles his way in and out of
trouble in 1960s Brighton.

Over the course of the afternoon, Corden literally throws himself into
every minute of what is a wonderful vehicle for his ongoing if somewhat
self-conscious rehabilitation into the nation's comedic heart. In a
Mod-era romp that looks like it could have been dreamt up by a Park
Life era Damon Albarn in some unholy union with the late Joe Orton, one
minute Corden is bashing himself about the head with a metal tray, the
next he's playing a vibraphone while sporting a fez. It's infectious
stuff, totally in keeping with the original play's Commedia d'ell'Arte
roots as Corden indulges in some panto-style audience participation.

Best of all is when he invites a couple of kids onstage to join him in
a heavy removal routine. The two boys in this instance happen to be a
pair of well-spoken eleven year olds called Frederick and Xavier.
Frederick, the taller of the two, somewhat uncannily bears the gait and
the hair of a pre-pubescent Boris Johnson.

“I'm slightly worried that these two are already better educated than
me,” Corden quips as he surveys the boys. Then, as they prepare to pick
up their load, “This may be the only manual labour you two ever do.”

As Frederick and Xavier provide this extra soup├žon of class-based
hilarity to proceedings, the overall effect is somewhere between
Opportunity Knocks, Crackerjack, Bruce Forsyth's Generation Game and
Russ Abbot's Variety Madhouse. All of which may have been prime time TV
favourites, but which were lifted wholesale from a vaudeville circuit
that would have made Corden's cheeky chappie persona a top turn.

On this showing, Corden fits into as long line of entertainers who've
been cast in serious drama. Ken Dodd and the late Max Wall both spring
to mind as Corden pratfalls fearlessly. Let's not forget, however,
that, while Corden may have been responsible in part for lame TV sketch
show Horne and Corden and self-explanatory big-screen enterprise,
Lesbian Vampire Killers, he has also appeared in films by Mike Leigh
and Shane Meadows. Given that Corden was also one of the original cast
of Alan Bennett's smash-hit play, The History Boys, one can also
probably let him off a couple of boorish appearances hosting awards
ceremonies and TV quiz shows.

If Corden has been doing his growing up in public ever since The
History Boys, then One Man, Two Guvnors is his coming of age. Or at
least that's the impression you get from this hoodied-up bundle of
energy's eager-to-please demeanour.

“It's the hardest thing I've ever done,” he says of the show. “Five
minutes before you're thinking you've got a really steep hill to climb
before you can relax, but that's why you do it, to be challenged in
that way.”

Of The History Boys, Corden says that “All eight boys who were in that
play have a romantic attachment to this building, and to Nick (Hytner),
and I think we all feel that it changed our lives. Not just
professionally, but personally. You come in here for an audition one
day, and a year and a half later you've shot a film and you're living
in New York. It's a dream of a thing to be involved in.

“The weirdest thing was coming back (to the National Theatre) without
those seven friends. We were like a little gang, and you always feel
stronger in a gang. But immediately those feelings evaporated, because
you just feel, or I feel, constantly lucky to be in a play like this,
to be playing a part like this. I can't quite believe that I am. That's
the truth. When I was growing up I never dreamt of playing Hamlet or
things like that. I remember going to see Me and My Girl with Gary
Wilmot in the West End and thinking, 'Oh, my God, that's the most
amazing thing I've seen in my life, and I want to do that'. So to do
this is an absolute joy from start to finish.”

Corden is back onstage in a couple of hours for the evening performance
of One Man, Two Guvnors, and must be exhausted. You'd never guess this,
however, as he holds court at what is called in the trade a 'regional
press day'. All those gathered today have signed a disclaimer at the
behest of the publisher of Corden's tellingly titled autobiography, May
I Have Your Attention, Please? This is to ensure nothing will appear in
any publication prior to the book's high-profile serialisation in a
well-known tabloid. Since then, of course, May I Have Your Attention,
Please? has been all over the place, and a book-signing tour of each
city that One Man, Two Guvnors travels to has been factored into his
schedule.

One gets the impression from all this activity that Corden is somehow
taking stock and making amends for past misdeeds. Everything he says is
invested with humility. Part of this clearly comes from the wake up
call that came with the birth of the thirty-three year old's first
child to his partner, Julia Carey. Yet, beneath his professional
niceness lies a contrary mix of burning ambition and a deep-set
vulnerability.

Corden doesn't so much tell as acts out a story that's in the book,
about how, as a toddler at his sister's christening, he was put on a
high chair by the vicar because he couldn't see. He instinctively
started to perform, eliciting giggles from the congregation, which he
thought was “great.” Once his dad took him down, however, and no-one
could see him anymore, it felt “rubbish. From then on in it just became
a quest, really, for attention, which I don't think exists anymore,
certainly in the last few years since I became more successful, but
this was all I ever wanted to do.”

After years of auditioning following a stint at stage school in High
Wycombe, Corden got his first professional job aged seventeen in the
chorus for west end musical, Martin Guerre. If such bit-parts weren't
enough, even the attention The History Boys brought with it had its
downside.

“There was one day when me, Russell (Tovey) and Andy (Knott) were all
being biked these scripts from our agents for a British film. There
were these two lead parts thety were seeing them for, and I was being
seen dor the part of a newsagent. I was really upset by it, because you
go, is this it? I always thought that I would get a chance to play good
parts. I didn't just want to be the guy who drops off Hugh Grant in a
cab.”

Beyond this current tour, One Man, Two Guvnors looks set for the West
End and beyond. Corden also has a bundle of writing, acting and
presenting jobs for TV on the go.

“I've never felt more fulfilled,” Corden says sincerely. “Both
personally and professionally, I've never felt happier.”

One Man, Two, Guvnors, Kings Theatre, Edinburgh, October 25-29
www.fcct.org.uk

The Herald, October 25th 2011

ends

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