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Shaw Festival review: A fabulous physical comedy and moody garden show off the festival’s extremes

shaw festival iPhoto caption: Production still from The Secret Garden by Michael Cooper; production still from One Man, Two Guvnors by David Cooper.
/By / Jul 1, 2024

One man, two guvnors, and a garden might sound like a strange summer packing list. 

But The Secret Garden and One Man, Two Guvnors, both playing at the Shaw Festival through the end of the summer, show off the extremes of the festival, from the family-friendly shimmer of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s beloved children’s story to the slapstick ridiculousness of the play that, in its UK premiere in the 2010s, confirmed for the world that, yes, James Corden can act.

If all is fair in this world, One Man, Two Guvnors will be a smash for the festival. The play, written by Richard Bean and based on Carlo Goldoni’s commedia dell’arte farce The Servant of Two Masters, brings with it hordes of physical comedy and low-brow humour. Under Chris Abraham’s direction and with Peter Fernandes in the title role, it’s easy to forgive the text for its erratic plot and paper-thin secondary characters; both Abraham and Fernandes are in their element, and neither get carried away by the play’s antics. Abraham’s direction is clean and precise, culminating in an end product that feels less like a three-ring circus à la Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 and more like a fine-tuned clown show. Fernandes hams the role of Francis just enough, knowing when to lean into the character’s idiosyncrasies and when to add his own playfulness and verve.

The title all but gives away the plot: it’s 1963 in beach town Brighton, and Francis is one man (dressed in a fetching checked suit designed by Julie Fox) with two bosses. Francis’ job falls somewhere between butler and messenger, and his only real concern is when he’ll get to enjoy his next meal. Francis is a hungry dude (and wow, does Bean hammer that home, plying Francis with relentless quips about just how much he’s looking forward to eating), but he’s run ragged by his demanding, oblivious masters.

And so it goes. There’s a B-plot involving lost love and a very confused Tom Rooney; all in, the plot’s not the thing you’ll care about when you watch the show. It’s the physical comedy of the production that truly astounds, from Fernandes’ expert handling of the play’s frequent audience participation to Matt Alfano’s unforgettable performances as a series of secondary characters. Never have I seen someone throw themselves down so many flights of stairs — it’s a physical feat that ought to be considered in the gymnastics category at next month’s Olympics in Paris.

A few secondary performances manage to bubble to the surface against Fernandes’ and Alfano’s scene-stealing antics. Rooney is, as usual, a delight to watch, and Allan Louis and Kiera Sangster add some needed depth to Francis’ hunger. The members of the onstage skiffle band, too, do a great job with the play’s music, used to mask transitions between scenes.

If I have any quibbles with One Man, Two Guvnors, they’re about the play itself: a majority of the work’s jokes hinge upon body-shaming Francis. It helps to know that Fernandes pitched the role to the Shaw Festival himself — some of the jokes about Francis’ body are pretty mean.

With a lesser creative team and cast, One Man, Two Guvnors might overstay its welcome quickly. (I didn’t love the Corden production, which you can stream online if you, for whatever reason, want more Corden in your life.) But as expected, Abraham and Fernandes continue to be one hell of a pair, and this production is just delightful.

The Secret Garden is a more mixed affair. Playing at the intimate Royal George Theatre, Jay Turvey and Paul Sportelli’s adaptation of the children’s fable is simple and sweet, with an emphasis on the story’s exploration of nature and animals. The Secret Garden follows Mary Lennox, a grieving child who’s just been moved to England following the death of her parents and ayah, or nanny, in India. Her new home, on first glance, seems to be inhospitable and cruel, with shadows and secrets lurking in every room. But when Mary discovers a locked garden nestled into the ridges of the estate, everything changes.

Gabriella Sundar Singh is a lovely Mary, beautifully capturing the 10-year-old’s simultaneous petulance and grief, but Turvey and Sportelli’s adaptation places an intermission at an awkward spot in the story, which ultimately bisects the viewing experience into two discordant halves. As such, Mary’s growth from rude, belligerent brat to kind-hearted young tween is abrupt and at times unearned, through no fault of Sundar Singh.

Thankfully, The Secret Garden has a gorgeous aesthetic going for it, from a stunning set and watercolour projections by Beyata Hackborn to decadent costumes by Judith Bowden. Linda Garneau’s movement direction, too, adds levity and whimsy to the production, particularly during Tama Martin’s dancelike movements as the robin, who early on cements himself as one of Mary’s best friends in an otherwise cold, echoing manor.

For the most part, the supporting cast is up to the task; Jacqueline Thair is warm and effusive as servant Martha, and Drew Plummer is a fabulous Dickon. It’s a shame that we don’t really get to meet Colin, Mary’s cousin, until the play’s second act — Gryphyn Karimloo (yes, they’re related) is a hoot.

I do wish The Secret Garden’s accents were more consistent, or better yet, scrapped entirely — neither the posh southeastern English accents nor the more hokey Yorkshire accents settle into themselves until about the midway point of the play. 

There’s a storybook charm to Turvey’s direction of The Secret Garden that would make it a fine choice for families with young-ish children, though to my eye the play will work best for audience members over the age of 10 — the pacing might be a little slow for littler ones. It’s an imperfect adaptation (if you love the 1991 musical version of this story as much as I do, you may be disappointed), but the story itself remains as robust and magical as ever. If you’re a die-hard Garden stan, sure, go, but if you can only make it to one Shaw Festival show this summer, I’d bet on One Man, Two Guvnors.

You can learn more about the Shaw Festival here.

Intermission reviews are independent and unrelated to Intermission’s partnered content. Learn more about Intermission’s partnership model here.

Aisling Murphy

Aisling Murphy

Aisling is Intermission's senior editor and an award-winning arts journalist with bylines including the Toronto Star, Globe & Mail, CBC Arts, CTV News Toronto, and Maclean's. She likes British playwright Sarah Kane, most songs by Taylor Swift, and her cats, Fig and June. She was a 2024 fellow at the National Critics Institute in Waterford, CT.



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