Interview with Richard Bean, Playwright of One Man, Two Guvnors

Richard BeanBorn in Hull, Richard Bean worked as an occupational psychologist and stand-up comedian before becoming a playwright. His plays include Honeymoon Suite, Harvest, The Heretic, Toast, The Big Fellah, England People Very Nice and an adaptation of Molière’s The Hypochondriac. One Man, Two Guvnors is Bean’s modern English version of Carlo Goldoni’s classic Italian comedy, The Servant of Two Masters.

How does writing an adaptation compare to writing an original play?
Writing an adaptation is pleasurable because someone’s already written the ending. Deciding how to end a play is a writer’s torture. With adaptations, you just have to make the plot work in the context you’ve decided on. One Man, Two Guvnors is set in Brighton in 1963. All I had to worry about was making it funny.

The Servant of Two Masters is very much of its period. What are the problems in adapting and updating a work of this genre?
The main problem to solve was that the original plot revolved around arranged marriage and that didn’t exist in the 1960s, except within certain cultures. The solution we came up with was to create a marriage of convenience because one of the parties was gay and wanted to hide that fact by marrying a woman. The second problem was the sword fighting that features in the original. In the 1960s, East End gangsters carried around flick knives so that introduced the gangster concept to the adaptation.

The Craze from One Man, Two Guvnors at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Photo by Johan Persson

You’ve relocated the play from 18th century Venice to 1960s Brighton. How did that come about?
I had many early discussions with Nick Hytner, the production’s director, about where to set it. As food is such a motivating factor for the central character, my original idea was to set it just after World War II because food was still being rationed. Nick wasn’t keen on that as he thought using military colours for the set and costumes would be too muted. He wanted to have more primary colours in the mix so we settled on 1963.

Francis Henshall (Rufus Hound) and Rachel Crabbe (Amy Cudden) in One Man, Two Guvnors. Photo by Johan Persson

You’ve retained many elements of Commedia dell’arte (Italian comedy). Was this important to you?
I wanted to keep most of the stock characters from the genre, but put a 1963 spin on them. So, for example, the birth of feminism gave us the character of Dolly. Although it’s not fashionable in contemporary theatre to have asides to the audience, I kept them in as I wanted to make an accessible, popular comedy that would find a new audience for the National Theatre.

One Man, Two Guvnors opened to critical acclaim at the National Theatre in 2011. It’s now on at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Book your tickets here.

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