Rufus Hound plays it for laughs in One Man, Two Guvnors
One Man, Two Guvnors, after breaking records and scooping awards in London and New York, is now on tour and heading to Norwich. DAVID HENSHALL spoke to new leading man Rufus Hound about filling some big shoes.
A triumph of visual and verbal comedy, One Man, Two Guvnors, has been described as the funniest production in the National Theatre's history.
It carried off the Evening Standard best play award in 2011 and then brought the house down on Broadway, winning a Tony for its star James Corden.
His place has been taken by comedian Rufus Hound for the show's national tour which arrives at Norwich Royal next week.
It was a role he was dying to get and one in the first instance he turned down. But everything comes to those who wait, it is said, and sure enough he got a second bite at it.
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A well-known stand-up and television favourite who has moved comfortably into acting, Hound was somewhat surprised to be asked by the National Theatre to audition for the role while he was appearing in Return to the Forbidden Planet in Belfast, and leapt at the chance.
He had seen the play with James Corden and reckoned it was the absolutely perfect part for a comedian because, in contrast to most of the shows on offer, 'you spend so much time talking to the audience and improvising'.
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But rule number one for an actor when invited to audition is to read what is required of you very carefully.
The email instructions asked him to prepare a number of scenes from One Man, Two Guvnors, something he didn't notice until about an hour or so before he was due to do his stuff. But he managed to wing it and was delighted to get a call-back for a second try — but this time in front of the National's boss Nick Hytner.
He was ready this time with a couple of scenes off pat and he rattled through them with a mixture of enjoyment and trepidation and, not wishing to copy Corden too directly, he put his own particular twist on the piece. Unnervingly, Hytner asked him to do it again. So he did and Hytner said 'lovely' and left the room.
However, as anybody in the theatre knows, 'lovely' can mean different things to different people and Hound went away wondering what it meant in his case. He needn't have worried because he was offered the job. But it was for the international tour.
'I told them I'd kill to do the part at home but, with a wife and two young children, being away for five months would be too much of a heartbreaker and I couldn't do it,' he recalls.
'The upshot was that Owain Arthur, who has been playing the part in the West End, is going off to Hong Kong and Australia and I got the national tour.'
The play is based on Carlo Goldoni's classic comedy The Servant of Two Masters, written in 1746, and it has been re-shaped into a riotous farce by Richard Bean. He has set the action in 1960s Brighton where Francis Henshall, a wannabe skiffle player, finds himself working for 'two guvnors'.
One, Rachel Crabbe, is disguised as her dead gangland brother's twin, wearing a mop-top wig. The other is a sort of snooty toff, Stanley Stubbers, who not only killed Rachel's brother but is also her secret lover.
Neither boss is aware the other is in Brighton as Francis ricochets between them like a shuttlecock and, in the play's most hilarious scene, serves them dinner simultaneously.
Rufus Hound isn't one for half-measures. Not satisfied with a sprinkling of facial hair, he grew a full handlebar moustache. Not content with a runaround car, he opted for the roar of a Triumph motorcycle. And not one for a traditional English wedding, he jetted off to Las Vegas to tie the knot in an Elvis-themed ceremony.
The funnyman married Beth Johnson – who he first met while working at the Reading Festival – in 2007 after a whirlwind four-month courtship because, says Hound, 'when you know, you know'.
Similarly Hound – whose real name is Robert Simpson – is full-on when it comes to his career. He has a CV full of high-profile stand-up gigs and TV appearances.
Francis Henshall is the latest in a number of stage roles he has undertaken, including the critically acclaimed Utopia at the Soho Theatre, plus movie appearances in The Wedding Video and My Fat Gypsy Gangster and numerous TV show like Let's Dance, Never Mind the Buzzcocks and seven series of the award-winning panel show Celebrity Juice.
He says the hard work that goes into the show cannot be underestimated because 'all the fun you see on stage comes at a massive sacrifice. I am clearly not built to rattle off something like this and, if I lose a lot of weight, I do the character of Francis a disservice because he is a fat boy trying to make the best of things – so I'm eating a lot of sweets, which is the upside of the job,' he says with a laugh.
The physical demands of the show are considerable so had he not thought of doing a fitness regime to tighten up the muscles? Hound laughs again: 'I did no fitness training and I wish I had because I needed lots of painkillers at the beginning. I simply wasn't used to this.' He thought his body would toughed up with time – 'but that's obviously a silly notion because you are just going flat out.'
As a result, the role of Francis has earned him a load of blisters, he needs ice packs for his shoulders and is getting the attention of a physiotherapist. 'When everyone else goes to the pub after the show, I go home and drink water because I'm falling to pieces after eight performances a week,' he says with a big grin that tells you how much he is really enjoying himself.
It's a gruelling performance but it gives Hound the opportunity to indulge his love of working an audience because a big feature of One Man,Two Guvnors is the amount of connection there is across the footlights. People seeing the show are involved, not least because Francis and the other characters are constantly updating them on what's happening in the story.
And there's something for everyone, he says. 'The reason this show is so good is that it is hitting you from all sides. You want a funny dance routine? There's one of those. Someone doing a comedy xylophone piece. There's one of those. A funny song, pratfalls, word play and pun runs – the lot.
'When we're on stage and I can see the band laughing, I know it's okay. The band has to watch a lot of this show, so if I can give them something different, that's lovely as well.'
It's something he will continue to do when he takes over the role of Francis at the Haymarket Theatre in the West End in the New Year.
Hound does a fine line in self-deprecation and witty asides, but speak to him for just a few minutes and it becomes clear he's utterly serious about his career.
The proud dad – who lives with his 'incredibly supportive' wife and their two children Alby, four, and Hilda, one, in the leafy south-west London suburb of Hampton – is keen to take on challenging roles.
'I read about Mark Rylance being back at the Globe and I think it would be incredible to work with some of the real actors, some of the guys who live it, breathe it. There are actors out there who just surpass what it is to play somebody else,' he says.
But his biggest statement of intent about his fledgling acting career has been to shave off the moustache which helped make him famous. 'There's no way Francis would have a big American handlebar moustache,' he explains, rubbing his cheek. 'So the Hulk Hogan's gone for a while. I might grow it back at some point. The business of playing other people seems to be easier if you don't look exactly like everybody thinks you look, so I'm happy to park it for a little bit.'
t One Man, Two Guvnors, Norwich Theatre Royal, December 4-8, �25-�6.50, 01603 630000, www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk