James Corden endeared himself to the public as Timms, one of the sixth-formers in Alan Bennett's 2004 hit The History Boys. Since then, with the sitcom Gavin & Stacey honourably excepted, his rather cocky and overbearing presence on jokey sports quizzes and at fractious award ceremonies has not been madly edifying. So it is a pleasure to report that he makes a triumphant comic return to the National as the hapless, over-stretched, two-timing servant in One Man, Two Guvnors, a deliriously daft and diabolically joke stuffed entertainment by Richard Bean that shifts Goldoni's 1743 commedia dell'arte play, The Servant of Two Masters, from Venice to the Brighton underworld of 1963.
Punctuated with songs from a clean-cut pre-Beatles group called the Craze and gradually released into elating lunacy by Nick Hytner's excellent production, this is like a cross between pantomime for adults and an exercise in drolly knowing hindsight about pre-Chatterley trial "innocence". "It's 1963, Dad, you can't force me to marry a dead homosexual," declares the likeably thick heroine (Claire Lamms), in a foretaste of the world of Joe Orton. Her actor boyfriend (Daniel Rigby) has changed his name from Orlando to Alan to be in with the Angries but can't help channelling Olivier.
His bulk bundled into a check suit, Corden establishes a wonderfully easy rapport with the audience as Francis Henshall, a washboard player who winds up in Brighton working, unbeknownst to either, for two bosses – one a woman (Jemima Rooper) masquerading as her murdered gangster brother, the other, in a blissfully funny performance by Oliver Chris, the kind of pervy toff that winds up in white-collar crime, whether it be estate agency or gangland vice.
Driven by the dictates of his empty stomach and bewilderment over his duties, Corden displays great natural gifts for physical clowning – whether picking a fight with himself that is a mad paroxysm of auto-pugilism or, in a sequence that could be called a tour de farce, dishing lunch to his two masters in separate rooms of The Cricketers' Arms, a challenge not helped by a doddery, cadaverous, 87-year-old fellow-waiter with a pacemaker, balance problems and an ongoing relationship with the staircase that its roughly that of rubbish to chute. One Man, Two Guvnors, one massive hit.
To 26 July (020 7452 3000); then touringUK from 27 September (www.nationaltheatre.org.uk)Reuse content