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This guvnor is hungry for success, adventure

From understudy to leading role, Owain Arthur is a man on a mission, writes Fiona Gruber.

Owain Arthur bounces onto the West End stage of One Man, Two Guvnors, buttons straining on his loudly checked three-piece suit.

With his rotund physique and a chortle so fruity it's virtually chutney, he's every inch the hapless Francis Henshall, a down-at-heel musician in desperate need of a good feed. Hunger drives him to run errands for two shady crims newly arrived in town; neither knows he's working for the other. Chaos ensues.

It is the show's last London matinee before its Australian tour and while the rest of the cast stick to the rapier wit of the script, Arthur's appearance on stage signals a lot of high-octane malarkey that seems totally fresh.

It is a mix of improvisation and structure, he says afterwards, laughing.

"It's the type of show where things can go wrong and you can acknowledge it, because there's no fourth wall." What Arthur means is that audience members are hauled up on stage and appealed to regularly.

It is all in the spirit of what Arthur calls the "Holy Grail" of comedy, commedia dell'arte, and One Man, Two Guvnors, Richard Bean's update of Carlo Goldoni's 18th century Servant of Two Masters , is set in the petty criminal world of 1960s' Brighton. Think Brylcreem, beehive hairdos and Carry On-style innuendo.


Originally the understudy to James Corden, for whom the show was commissioned by London's National Theatre, Arthur watched the Gavin & Stacey star woo audiences and critics alike. He had heard that the play's director, Nicholas Hytner, was looking for a high-profile actor to replace Corden when the original cast transferred to New York last April, but never expected to get the part; understudies are always the bridesmaids, never the brides.

He had taken the role because he reckoned it was worth it for the four performances standing in for Corden when he had other commitments. It was on the first of these occasions, with an audience full of casting agents and critics, that Hytner tapped Arthur on the shoulder at the interval and told him the part was his.

He laughs again at the memory. "It was a 'do or die' evening. I can't think of ever being under more pressure; I had nothing to lose and everything to lose. So many things could have gone wrong but I was lucky."

He is being modest. Several critics have said Arthur is actually as good as, if not better than, Corden (who won a Tony on Broadway), an assessment Bean agrees with.

"With Corden as Francis Henshall, you get a lot of James's personality, as in 'this is James Corden doing the part' but with Owain you get less of that, partly because we don't know who Owain Arthur is, but also because I think he is Francis Henshall," he says.

Arthur, 29, is not a complete unknown, of course; he has worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company and played in Alan Bennett's The History Boys at the National Theatre, but it is is his biggest role to date.

He is delighted to be coming our way, he says in his strong Welsh lilt, with the tour anchoring him in Australia for the best part of four months.

I expect him to say that he will be hotfooting it back to Britain for another juicy role in the West End but he says no; he is going to catch up with friends. Then he wouldn't mind auditioning for some parts here, he says.

"I've heard there's lots of quality theatre. I've lots of friends who've worked there for a year or so and have heard only good reports," he says. He is keen on film and television work too, if anyone is interested.

What sort of roles? ''Something a bit different from his present character, he says, with his big-bellied, knowing laugh. "Something with more weight."

One Man, Two Guvnors is at the Adelaide Festival, February 28 to March 9; Sydney Theatre, March 30 to May 11; Melbourne, May 17 to June 22.