Richard Bean’s comic phenomenon One Man, Two Guvnors is heading to Broadway’s Music Box Theatre in April, leaving the smash hit comedy to relaunch with a mostly new cast at its third London theater, the Haymarket, where performances began on March 2. While original British star James Corden preps for New York, the leading role of harried Francis Henshall has gone to Owain Arthur, who filled in on four occasions for Corden during the play’s previous run. Broadway.com spoke to the amiable 29-year-old Welshman about making the role of the servant with two masters (or “guvnors” in Bean’s version of the Carlo Goldoni original, now set in the gangland world of 1960s Brighton) his own, and about how he might be spending his vacation time in May.
It must be fascinating returning to a play you performed with the Broadway-bound cast, this time in a new theater and with a mostly new ensemble.
It has felt like a new play, even though people’s choices in rehearsal often mirrored what was happening at the Adelphi [the play’s previous West End perch]. The most weird thing for me was seeing everybody in their costumes; it was nice to see them dressed up and ready to go, but very strange, too.
I can understand that, since you associate those roles with the previous company.
Yes, and also because I was in the earlier cast, playing a taxi driver and watching James [Corden] and everyone else, even when I didn’t go on in James’ part. It’s been fun now looking at my understudy playing the taxi driver: it’s as if the roles have been reversed.
One Man, Two Guvnors has been a runaway hit since it opened last May at the National Theatre. What accounts for its success?
I suppose the show has an innocence about it. There is nothing heavy going on that makes the audience think “Oh, god,” and the script itself is so funny. Audiences come out saying, “I’ve never laughed so much in my entire life,” so you get that “wow” word-of-mouth. Also, people like to see other people making mistakes or falling over and not actually hurting themselves. Watching that happen just makes you laugh; people can let their guard down.
How did you get the plum role of Francis Henshall?
I had four performances at the Adelphi when we knew James wasn’t going to be available, and at the interval [intermission] of the first one, [director] Nick Hytner came up just to congratulate me and said, “I’d love you to take over from James in March.” Don’t ask me what else he said after that because I’m not sure I heard him!
Presumably James was able to brief you about what it takes to drive this comedy eight times a week.
James is like an ox! Other than his scheduled absences, he never missed a single show. And I can’t tell you the stamina [the part] takes: I have to change my costume in the interval because I sweat so much, so I have a completely new costume for the second act—things get very busy on a matinee day [laughs]. It’s like a huge workout, but at the same time, the show carries you; it’s so demanding that I drink about eight bottles of water a show.
No carousing after the performance, then?
The minute I take the costume off, I want to go home and curl up in bed!
Were you always going to be an actor?
The truth is that when I was a child in Rhiwlas [in North Wales] I would never take part in anything in the Sunday School service; I always just used to sulk in the back. But there was one time when I was about six when I walked on to a local stage dressed as B.A. Baracus from The A-Team, and I got a huge reaction from the audience. I thought, hold on, I like this: what’s this feeling I’m getting? [Laughs.] It must have been the cute factor! That’s what started the need of wanting to go on stage.
And then you began acting professionally?
Yes, I was about 11 or 12 and I got a job playing a paper boy on a very popular Welsh-language soap opera called Rownd a Rownd, which is still going! I spent nine years or so doing that and knew I wanted to carry on acting but needed to know more about it, which is why I left the soap to go to college [London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama, from which Arthur graduated in 2006]. But there’s absolutely no history of acting in my family. My father runs a small bakery and my mother is a district nurse.
It must be fun travelling around London and seeing your face everywhere on the posters for One Man, Two Guvnors.
I travel by overground from Wimbledon [in south London] so I haven’t seen my face anywhere yet! But I can’t tell you the number of times I have walked under the poster that is outside our theater, which has a huge picture of me on it, and no one has said a thing: I don’t know whether to be happy about that or pissed off [laughs].
Meanwhile, I see from the website that you have some time off from the play in May. Will you use that vacation to go to New York and check in with your former colleagues?
I might need a break from the whole show, but I’ve never been to New York. That’s something I’ve always wanted to do, and James has said I can go crash with him. So, maybe this is the perfect opportunity?