Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors has seen astonishing success. In just four years, it’s delighted over a million people worldwide. Now the National Theatre are taking this production on the road once more for its biggest ever UK tour. An updating of Carlo Goldoni’s 1746 drama ‘The Servant of Two Masters’, this witty production fuses demanding physical comedy, farce and improvisation. We follow the misadventures of Francis Henshall, who finds himself in the service of two different gangland bosses: One is Rachel, a woman disguised as her dead twin brother Roscoe. The other is her estranged lover Stanley, responsible for the murder of Rachel’s sibling. Neither is aware of their conflicting staff arrangements, but they do yearn to be reunited. This is just the start of the confusion.
It’s a colourful and chaotic glimpse into the sleazy underworld of 60s Brighton. “It’s highly organised chaos,” Norman Pace tells me. “The art of it is to make it look like it’s chaos, when you know exactly what you’re doing. That’s true of all comedy and of all acting.” Featuring Gavin Spokes as Francis Henshall, Alicia Davies as Rachel Crabbe and Patrick Warner as Stanley Stubbers, the cast sees Pace play Charlie ‘The Duck’ Clench. Once Roscoe’s prospective father in law, he’s now another component in the comic confusion.
Just over 16 years ago, Pace was half of comedy duo Hale & Pace, crafting an anarchic world of crap children’s TV presenters, moody doormen and microwave misuse. These two former teachers enjoyed massive ratings over a decade of hilariously barbed sketches and uproarious musical numbers, repeatedly finding new, imaginative and occasionally controversial ways to challenge broadcasting standards. “I’ve no regrets at all. Gareth and I had a complete joyride. Look how far it went.” Although their work might not be treated with the same misty-eyed reverence as a few contemporaries, Hale & Pace produced one of the best and most viewed sketch shows of the last thirty years. “For me it’s a long time ago. But I am aware of the impression we made on people. It does seem, with comedy particularly, you always play to the generation behind you!”
After spending 18 years bearing the pressure as one of the most recognisable faces on British TV and a demanding work schedule, it seems he’s relieved the clamour has gently ebbed away. “I’m in a different place now, but it’s a place I prefer. When Gareth and I were hot you couldn’t stop and put petrol in your car.” Regardless of his significant pedigree Pace still humbly views himself as a novice when it comes to acting. “I’ve been privileged to have learned on the job. It’s rather the wrong way round. I should be paying thousands to do acting school.” So now he’s repositioned himself in the entertainment industry. But taking to the stage could arguably be described as a return to his roots. “I first stepped on as an infant school kid and loved it. It’s my second childhood now, so I might as well carry on.” From his manner you get the feeling that Pace is consistently optimistic. Also, whilst remaining modest about his abilities, he certainly knows what he’s capable of and what he wants to achieve.
Upon seeing One Man, Two Guvnors during its West End run he tasked his agent with assuring his involvement. Whether it’s down to raw talent, providence or good representation, Pace now finds himself in one of the National Theatre’s biggest touring productions. The tightly-woven plot and its broad appeal is the perfect place to demonstrate his all-embracing talents. Both Pace and the play come from a great tradition of British comic writing. “It’s fantastic. I feel privileged. Who’d have thought I’d be working for the National Theatre. I never t hought t hat would have happened!”
After hugely successful runs in London, New York and Sydney, the National Theatre’s touring mega-hit is now visiting almost every corner of the UK. It seems regional touring is the NT’s answer to the challenges facing the arts in recent times. As we talk Pace is in Truro, there’s no denying he’s finding elements of the tour hectic. The previous run was up in Aberdeen, after which the cast flew to Manchester, enjoyed a four hour stopover before flying another four hours to Newquay. From here the journey featured a bus to Truro, then a search for food at 7pm on Sunday. “The National Theatre has a principle now to send their shows out to everybody. So if that means travelling 650 miles between venues, then so be it. You’re taking the message to the people.” This December One Man, Two Guvnors will see him returning to Theatre Royal Brighton, after last visiting with Annie Get Your Gun. This approaching stop-off is particularly welcome for Pace. It presents the play in the city of its setting, and the extended run brings other benefits for a touring cast. “Everyone’s really looking forward to it. I can unpack my case!”
One Man, Two Guvnors comes to Theatre Royal Brighton on Tue 16 Dec – Sun 04 Jan.
One Man, Two Guvnors production shots by by Pamela Raith.