Not everyone gets to make a West End splash as a lovesick, poshly spoken, faintly dimwitted chap who also happens to be wildly hairy and vaguely masochistic. “I, too, enjoy pain,” the character Stanley Stubbers declares well into the first act of One Man, Two Guvnors, arching a comic eyebrow. As Stanley, actor Oliver Chris is a major reason why Richard Bean’s smash-hit rewrite of Carlo Goldoni’s commedia dell’arte classic The Servant of Two Masters is headed to Broadway on April 4. With the National Theatre production still happily ensconced at London’s Adelphi Theatre, the charming, articulate Chris shared with Broadway.com his excitement at making his American stage debut, the fun of being rude onstage and the confusion caused having a name that consists of two first names.
One Man, Two Guvnors is selling out in a West End musical playhouse, which means 1,500 people are laughing their heads off eight times a week. What’s it like to be in a phenomenon?
You know what? I’ve been around the block a bit; I’ve been in very successful stuff and also some bad stuff, and I know what it’s like to have raw fingernails from clawing! [Laughs.] So to be in a play like this, which you describe as a “phenomenon”—I know what that’s worth, and I intend to enjoy it and be grateful for it. I am just full of pride and pleasure to be in something like this.
You get the girl, as well as delivering terrific asides and one-liners, many of which are too deliciously absurd to reprint.
We take huge pleasure in the audience’s pleasure. The whole point of this play—which is terribly important as we think about going to America—is that it’s about joy. There is no cynicism or edge to it; it’s just about joy and fun. We may have done it 199 times or whatever, but we get the freshness of the first time the audience hears it, and that freshness translates to us. There’s an interaction between the cast and the audience, and when that fires, there’s nothing in the world like it.
Does the experience vary from show to show, given the knockabout quality of the evening?
We very rarely mess with the script. Obviously, there’s a heavy amount of improvisation from James’ point of view. [James Corden plays the title “man” who is manically serving two “guvnors,” or bosses.] Sometimes it goes off the rail, but that’s the great thing about the play. You know that roller coaster in Coney Island? The play is like that in the way it hurtles around. You can scream if you want to go faster, and very occasionally a wheel will lift off. But you always finish the ride.
Your character, Stanley, one of the two “masters,” is both privileged and daft, romantic and at times remarkably rude. What did you draw on in order to play him?
Basically, I used three people: Captain Flashheart from [the BBC sitcom] Blackadder and Bertie Wooster [of the Jeeves stories] and a little bit of [actor] Edward Fox thrown in for good measure. Basically, he’s Bertie Wooster with a libido and lots of body hair [laughs]. He’s a bizarre mix of arrogance and charm and a sense of entitlement, as well as innocence and joy and love.
He’s also terrifically endearing, though I can imagine a version of Stanley that might not be.
Yes, I suppose so, but it’s not as if I tried to pull him back from being smug. I think it has to do with the fact that there isn’t a vindictive bone in this play’s body, and that bleeds through into the audience. It’s all very broad stuff, but what underpins the whole thing is that however silly it gets, these people are so in love with each other that it hurts. [The play ends with more multiple couplings than many a Shakespeare comedy.]
Some of what you have to do almost defies description, but give it a try.
[Laughs.] OK, I smack an 87-year-old man in the face with a cricket bat, I’ve just murdered my girlfriend’s brother, and I trample all over everybody. At the same time, I do it because I’m in love.
The role is so distinctive in terms of accent, it must be tempting to carry some of your better remarks with you out the stage door.
The stage management have a go at me at times because Stanley is quite a lot about physicality. At times, they’ll say, “You’re still doing it”—the supercilious accent or the aristocratic overbite. I do find myself barking out ridiculous things offstage in a very posh accent [laughs].
You’ve had some remarkable stage experiences, not least playing Bottom to Judi Dench’s ravishing Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream several seasons ago.
That was just mind-blowing. There am I, 8 foot 6 and Judi’s 4 foot 1, and I have my head resting on her stomach and her hands are cradling my face and she is speaking some of the most famous lines in Shakespeare in front of the director [Sir Peter Hall] she’s most famous for working with. You find yourself thinking, “Where do I go from here?”
Is it true you were in the second Bridget Jones film?
I had like one line, literally, but that’s the curse of imdb.com—it’s the only credit it gives me [laughs]. I appear in a scene in an art gallery, which we filmed at the Serpentine in Kensington Gardens.
You’re headed to Broadway soon. Have you ever been to New York?
I have; I actually saw The Producers there, but several generations in; i.e. not with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. I’ve been as a tourist only and really enjoyed it. It’s going to be amazing to be back doing this.
I’m interested in your name. Do people ever say it backwards?
[Laughs] When I had to renew my passport, I told them my surname was Chris. They said “Are you sure?” And I said, “I’m not sure about much, but I definitely know what my name is!”