One comedy, two audiences: UK hit tailored for Broadway

Playwright Richard Bean reworks James Corden show to suit American theatregoers
  • @MrNickClark

Playwright Richard Bean understands the quip about a common language dividing Britain and America better than most. Tonight marks the first Broadway performance of his National Theatre smash hit One Man, Two Guvnors – a quintessentially British comedy, albeit adapted from an Italian play – and Bean has been working to the wire on a transatlantic "translation".

Double yellow lines and solicitors face the chop in a bid to make the dialogue American-friendly, but the dustbins and cricketers, so far, are staying. But even when the curtain goes up this evening, Bean's new script version will be a work in progress.

The show, starring James Corden, has proved a runaway success in Britain, and classically British shows have been on a good run of US form of late: Billy Elliot picked up 10 Tony awards, War Horse took five, prompting plans for a 20-city tour, while Jerusalem received huge critical acclaim.

Nevertheless, all involved in One Man, Two Guvnors face an anxious wait to see if its riotous humour will have the Broadway crowds rolling in the aisles.

In a bid to maximise its chances, Corden – who has no ready-made fan base in the US – has been heavily publicised in the build up to the opening. "I wonder if they see a US archetype in James; the comedy fat guy," said Bean, who arrived in New York on Wednesday, a day after the first rehearsal.

He and director Sir Nicholas Hytner, will now use a series of previews to further tailor the dialogue and pratfalls for a US audience ahead of its official opening night at the Music Box theatre later this month.

Bean, who wrote One Man, Two Guvnors by radically reworking Carlo Goldoni's 18th-century work The Servant of Two Masters, moving it to Brighton in 1963, said that adapting the work for a US crowd was a "subtle process".

"The basic rule was to remember what this is; it is end-of-the-pier nonsense set in Brighton, it is not end-of-the-pier nonsense in Coney Island. I think the American audience will go with its Britishness."

Yet the writer has been forced to tweak some of the language. "There's a joke about one of the characters leaving his horse on a double yellow line. That horse has become double parked," Bean said. The decisions about what to change were not all so straightforward. "There's the running debate over solicitor versus attorney and just a load of little things like that," he said. "I will keep working on it through the previews to see what works."

One word to survive was dustbin, which is used in a pun on the name Dustin. Bean was loathe to change the word to trashcan "as they would not have said that in Brighton of the Sixties" – and the joke would fall flat. Instead of taking the line out, Bean set the scene up by using Corden's character to refer to the dustbin in an earlier scene.

While references to one character talking about an Arsenal fan as a "Gooner" were removed, Denis Compton and Don Bradman remain, with an explanatory line referring to them as "famous cricketers". He's unsure whether that will make the final cut.

By way of preparation, Bean met American tourists who saw the play when visiting London, to find out what translated: "I spent a long time listening," he said. "We went through the semantics pretty thoroughly. Ultimately there's enough physical comedy in it to mean that hopefully the language won't get in the way."