From Puck in Shakespeare, to Buttons in panto. From some major roles in some very edgy productions, to commercials for Oreo cookies – Aidan O’Neill will turn his hand to anything. Give him Two Guvnors, and Aidan is your Man.
So taking the lead role of Francis in the major Devonshire Park production, which opened this week, was unlikely to daunt Aidan. The CV certainly bubbles with variety, and especially with roles that need a bright, versatile personality. Catching up with Aidan in a brief break from rehearsals, I can instantly spot the Francis. There is an impishness in the Francis role, a lovable rogue who engages the audience with a wink and a grin, and the off-stage O’Neill is relaxed about slipping into that role.
You didn’t take too much persuading, Aidan? “I was absolutely delighted to accept the part. I’ve worked with Chris before and we know we can work together, so knowing that he was directing was a definite factor.”
One Man Two Guvnors: what exactly is so special about it? “It’s a really complicated play – but in the best sense because as audience, you jump on board with it and cling on for dear life! And it’s really fast-paced, with loads going on. You have to be right on your toes, which is what we’ve been trying for right from the start in rehearsal. This is not a play you want to spend ages reading round the table.”
The play – which actually dates back to 1741 in its original Italian form – still retains its Commedia dell’Arte tradition. Don’t expect grim realism or deep truths about the human condition. Do expect a crazily-paced, preposterous plot with a dash of pantomime – and in this Devonshire Park production, a cracking musical element threaded right through the show, with actor-musicians bringing the 1963 setting to life.
It enjoyed phenomenal success with a Nick Hytner production at the National Theatre, from 2010, transferring to the West End and to Broadway, and it was the show which made James Corden’s career. Aidan, is the Corden factor even a fear factor, in the knowledge that he was so successful? “To only a very small extent, people who’ve seen him are going to compare you – but there’s not much I can do about that. I have come to it fresh and I haven’t ever seen the play, which is probably a good thing.
“Every production is different and new, from the casting onwards. Corden played the part Cockney, but as it happens, I’m Irish – as you can instantly hear – and I play it Irish, so that gives it my own branding.”
And so how about the key “imaginary friend” – readers, if that puzzles you, you’ll simply have to get to the theatre and find out – wasn’t Corden’s friend Scottish? The question draws a chuckle and a little enigmatic look. “Who knows – he may turn out to be Scottish, or from Bristol or from Newcastle! People will have to come and see… But that’s a good example – James Corden brought what he brought to the part, I need to bring what I can bring.”
“I imagine there will be a mix of some who have seen it and probably more who haven’t – maybe didn’t venture up to London or didn’t make it in time while the run was on.”
“We will want to really hit the ground running and get the town talking. A three week run is actually great, because it lets us build momentum. Sometimes you can be frustrated with a show that you’ve just got right and the run finishes, or if you’re touring you have to pack your bags and start again. I’ve been into the Devonshire Park and it’s such a lovely old theatre, we’ll make it a second home.”
A tight rehearsal schedule? “Yes, but that can turn to advantage. We got ahead with blocking the show, which has meant we can focus on the business, the timing, the interplay. We’ve a young energetic talented company, we’re packed with actor-musicians, which always gives a really good dynamic. I’m excited by what they are bringing to it. There is so much that’s been happening in rehearsal – you’ll have to wait and see!” By Kevin Anderson.