Anyone who’s managed to get in to the sold out run of One Man, Two Guvnors at the National Theatre will attest that James Corden is an incredibly funny man. Despite what Horne and Corden led you to believe, his performance here is a master class in timing and physical comedy, as well as improvisation and comic asides. Rumour has it that the show’s director Nicholas Hytner had to intervene recently, urging the cast to tone down the improv and stick to the script. The truth is, a lot of this improv is in the script in the first place (available from the NT bookshop), it is just delivered by Corden and co with such astonishing veracity that you’d believe it was all off the cuff. The show is now lined up for a large-scale tour and then a West End transfer – I’d be prepared to bet that the unbelievable turn of events that happened at the show you saw will also happen at the Adelphi later in the year. You still wouldn’t believe it was scripted though, as James Corden is a very funny man.
Across the river, two of his The History Boys classmates are performing in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, another comedy directed by another previous director of the National Theatre, Sir Trevor Nunn. It’s a very well put together production of a classic play; slick, intelligent, well-performed, thought-provoking and funny, but it’s hardly likely to set the world alight. Samuel Barnett and Jamie Parker do fantastic jobs of Stoppard’s unlikely heroes, but unlike Corden, they’re shackled by the restraints of the classic direction of the classic play. As a result, there isn’t much of a sense of urgency, and they simply don’t come across as comic personalities of the same calibre of Corden.
Speaking of comic personalities of the same calibre of Corden, one can’t help but wonder what his understudy must be thinking. Francis is the heart of the play, barely off-stage, and written and developed with Corden in mind – it’s impossible to imagine anyone else doing it, and I don’t envy the man waiting in the dressing room. When the show transfers to the Adelphi in February, there are already a few dates that Corden can’t make due to previous commitments, and an alternative Francis has already been lined up to fill his shoes, none other than Owain Arthur, another History Boy.
Of course, it’s no secret that The History Boys catapulted a number of young actors to fame – Dominic Cooper grew out of the school uniform to become an international film star and Russell Tovey’s ears seem to pop up in most BBC Three comedies these days. I’ve already written about the tendency for big name celebrities to tackle theatre, but this dominance of history boys seems to be something else – perhaps a testament to Nicholas Hytner and his casting department who managed to discover the next crop of genuine theatrical talent.
And I think this is important: would these young actors have had the careers to date that they have managed were it not for this initial launchpad? I was a lot more excited about James Corden’s return to the National stage than, for example, Julian Barratt’s performance in The Young Vic’s production of The Government Inspector. This show was sold on his star turn; the poster was a picture of his face, and the publicity blazoned with references to The Mighty Boosh. My lasting impression of the play, however, was of Kyle Soller’s performance as Khlestakov. His charisma, comic sensibility and extraordinary physicality ran circles around Barratt, who seemed a bit swamped by the large auditorium; his trademark tiny, darty eyes a little bit too tiny for theatre.
I guess the point I’m getting at is the importance of providing theatrical launchpads for young actors – an opportunity for them to cut their teeth and learn their craft, but also to show the world what they can do. The National Theatre did this with The History Boys, and is still doing it today – its impressive annual Connections Festival kicked off again recently with a host of new plays for young people released for schools to tackle. Once in a while, these launchpad productions will take off, and carry the actors with them. Who knows where they’ll land?