Londonist has been lucky enough to see three of the original History Boys on stage in London this week. Our original intent was to see Jamie Parker and Samuel Barnett in Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (RAGAD) at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, and tell you precisely why you should go and see it. But last-minute tickets showed up to see One Man, Two Guvnors (1M2G) at the National, starring James Corden, and scuppered all our plans.
For in the latter, we've seen something so special as to slightly spoil any other plays for us for a while.
There are similarities in the two shows. Both are "based" on earlier texts; RAGAD on Hamlet, 1M2G on Carlo Goldoni's Servant of Two Masters. Both contain wonderful wordplay; RAGAD shows Stoppard at his best, 1M2G's Richard Bean digs our Anglo Saxon past for dirty nuggets of comedy gold. Both rely on chunks of absurd metadrama, knowingly winking at the audience in a "yup, we're in a play here, how are you enjoying it?" for comedy. Both contain characters who are "actors, darhling", (RAGAD's The Player, 1M2G's Alan), again, to lovingly send up the notion of theatre.
And yet, seen together, 1M2G seems to drive a stake into the ageing heart of the two confused protagonists at the centre of RAGAD. Parker and Barnett shine as Guildenstern and Rosencrantz (or is it the other way round?). Barnett is flighty and flustered with some hilarious "blond" moments of pure, beautiful incomprehension; Parker makes the pair with an earthier, death-deliberating stoicism.
But the performances in One Man, Two Guvnors are all so pitch perfect, the script so laugh a minute, the show so stuffed with music, it really seals blogger Ian Foster's conclusion that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is "one joke stretched very thin."
When you've seen James Corden somersault backwards over a chair in the first five minutes of a play (to catch a peanut in his mouth); heard Oliver Chris's demanding toff cry that the man who first thought of serving food in a pub's "balls be wrapped in bacon and sent to the nurse"; smelt the burning flame of an onstage cookery exploit go wrong; tasted the hot fear of a play's fourth wall being utterly destroyed (audience participation? At the National?); and felt the face-aching exhaustion that comes at the interval of an incredibly packed laugh-out-loud farce, it's hard to spot what audiences in the 60s loved about Stoppard's slightly plodding Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
We've come away from the two shows thinking just how lucky we are to have all these theatrical talents in our midst in London this summer. But for his sheer delight in properly entertaining a live audience night after night, London theatre has only one comedy Guvnor this season: James Corden.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead plays at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until 20 August. Tickets are £18-£51; you can get Day Seats for £21 from 10am at the theatre. One Man, Two Guvnors seems to be sold out at the National until 19 September, but you can get Day Seats and returns... and we've heard a rumour it might be transferring to the West End following the closure of Love Never Dies – watch this space.
Disclaimer: Londonist saw Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead on a review ticket from Premier PR last night. We bought the full-price One Man, Two Guvnors tickets from a friend who was unable to attend at short notice on Friday night.