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Split Pants, Frilly Aprons, and "Two Guvnors"

Date: Apr 18, 2012


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Whether it's Venice in 1743 or the British seaside in 1963 or Broadway in 2012, you've got to have doors. Two of them. And not just any doors, at least when you're staging a farce.
"They need to be on opposite sides of the stage, and they need to slam both ways offstage as well as onstage. And they have to withstand any number of bodies caroming into them."
That was the first of many tasks faced by Mark Thompson, who designed the sets and costumes for one of London's more unlikely recent hits: One Man, Two Guvnors, Richard Bean's chaotic revamp of Carlo Goldoni's commedia dell'arte staple The Servant of Two Masters. The Evening Standard Award-winning adaptation made its way from the National Theatre to the West End, and now it's on Broadway at the Music Box Theatre.
Star James Corden is probably the head caromer: The script requires his character, Francis Henshall, to juggle a pair of bosses---"guvnors," in British slang. After signing on with a woman disguised as her dead twin brother, Francis also starts working for the woman's hirsute lover, who's also her brother's murderer. (If you think that's confusing, so does Francis.) Pratfalls, groaning puns, audience participation (willing and otherwise), and musical interludes punctuate his increasingly desperate efforts to keep both bosses happy.
As soon as those sturdy, slammable doors were squared away, Thompson was free to convey the tattered conviviality that audiences associate with 1960s Brighton. British audiences, that is: Thompson and director Nicholas Hytner gave only the slightest thought to how Americans would handle the provincial setting.
"There was no 'Oh, let's change this because we're coming to New York' feeling," says Thompson, 55, who has designed more than a dozen Broadway shows, including Mamma Mia! and God of Carnage. "The only thing Americans might have a hard time getting their head around is all of the cricket references."
Since the National Theatre run, Thompson has added details to his designs "that are whimsical and a bit music-hall-ish," including a frilly apron that Corden wears while ironing. He takes no responsibility, however, for another visual gag that technically qualifies as a costume. "The hairy chest and hairy back [on Guvnor No. 2] came from Richard [Bean]---you'd have to ask him about that particular obsession."
That apron, along with everything else Corden wears, has had to be let in, thanks to the calisthenic benefit of such a physical play. "It's marked, the difference in James," Thompson says of the newly trim (or at least trimmer) actor. "He's a new man. He's lost stones."
But while the leading man's tweeds may require a bit less fabric, the One Man, Two Guvnors costume crew still has its work cut out for it. For instance, it has to clean up the mess from a seemingly spontaneous use of a fire extinguisher for an uproarious sight gag at the end of Act I. "It's actually foamed-up baby shampoo," says Thompson.
And then there's the matter of the crotch on Corden's pants.
"He's gone through quite a few pairs of ripped trousers along the way," the designer says. "So they're reinforced now. Even still, I believe he split a pair at the first preview in New York. We've always got extras backstage."

Eric Grode is the author of the recently released "Hair: The Story of the Show That Defined a Generation" (Running Press).