National Theatre, Olivier – until 3 September 2022
Who knew that Caroline Quentin could achieve (almost) the splits, while strumming a ukulele? Or that that Richard Bean and Chris Oliver – who a decade ago created the NT’s world-conquering One Man, Two Guvnors – would for their next 18c update attempt a mashup of Sheridan’s classic frothy Restoration romcom The Rivals, and set it in a WW2 RAF base? But there we are, in a romantically perfect Sussex-Downs set complete with wicker chair, teacups, Nissen hut and dismantled nose cone.
The romantic entanglements are taking place during the Battle of Britain, and larded with RAF slang and numerous outrageously rude malapropisms. There are from the start knowing asides across the fourth wall, eventually an unexpected but suitably frenetic ensemble lindy-hop jitterbug, mickey-takes of 1940s socialist feminism and inter-service rivalry. And, slightly shaking some audience members on the way out, a clear authorial decision that since the Few were real heroes, old men now – if they were lucky enough to live – there’s a dark side you might as well express too.
It’s a nifty idea: although romantic entanglements in frivolous 18c Bath society might seem a long way from a Sussex airbase both were full of young people in full flower, constrained by class and circumstance but longing for love and sex. RAF women, remember, held many jobs: in this case Natalie Simpson’s swashbuckling Lydia Languish is a uniformed Air Transport Auxiliary delivery pilot and her friend Julia an army driver. Cleverly, the 18c original heroine’s delusions about the romance of poverty, wanting a plebeian lover, is transmuted into our Lydia’s inverted-snob yearning for a Yorkshire mechanic rather than the heir to Sir Anthony’s Devonshire acres.
There’s room for Quentin’s Mrs Malaprop too, since a requisitioned manor house must have a chatelaine, and she remains just as happily delusional and romantically yearning as any of them. Though I have to tell you that her verbal mis-speaks are almost universally filthy (“..full to the quim” the least of them. Though my favourite is her protest at her lexical confusions being laughed at: “How dare you suggest that I employ a mutilated Mexican?”).
There’s a comically earnest Sikh airman in the part of Sheridan’s comic Irishman, a Churchill joke just at the moment you think the jokes have stopped, and a wedding-night conversation of the kind that probably absolutely happened in the 1940s but wouldn’t have got onstage. And in a sudden weirdly dark conversation there’s one of the lovers frivolously asking his girl if she would still love him without arms, or legs, or a face, and you remember that this might very likely happen to him, any night, shot down in flames literally rather than romantically.
Early on I wondered if the balance could be maintained between the reality of a wartime setting where any morning would see names crossed off the active board and iron beds cleared, but they get away with it. Emily Burns’ high-spirited direction keeps gales of laughter meeting good lines, disguises (oh the moustache gag) and misunderstandings, and the director’s prudent recruitment of Tony Park of Spymonkey to keep the physical comedy precise and frantic pays off (it was, remember, Cal McCrystal’s merciless phys-com that elevated One Man, Two Guvnors).
You knew you were in Park’s safe clown-trained hands early on, when Peter Forbes’ classically magnificent army buffer Sir Anthony Absolute is blocking a doorway. A terrified Jordan Metcalfe in the apologetic-innocent part has to squeeze, slowly and apologetically, round his embonpoint to get out. Immaculate. Later, an incompetent four-sided boxing match shows the same dark genius, and I hope the NT has plenty of Deep Heat backstage for later.
Bean and Chris are accomplished jokesmiths, never failing to add an irrelevant laugh in passing (“We don’t live in Scotland any more. Because of the food”) and giving the great Forbes absolute licence in his vast raging rants whether about youth – including the front row – or frivolities (“I didn’t die at Ypres so you could talk about biscuits. Mafeking? Tremendous fun, we ate a lot of horses” etc. Using Kerry Howard’s lively maid to shrug at the audience about theatrical absurdities in restoration comedy is fun too: on one of the farcical knock-at-the-door-who’s-that moments she snaps “That’s how these plays work” and another time resignedly explains “I”m a dramatic device!”.
Well, I’ll tell you no more. They get away with it all, light and dark but mainly light, until in the end you think to yourself that actually, people did joke blackly and carry on calmly in those circumstances. We know it from contemporaneous plays like Flare Path, and books, and memoirs, and old men who don’t talk about it until their last years. It almost felt like a kind of tribute to a tougher age, whose jokes and banter were probably every bit as good as ours.
Box office http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk to 3 sept. But I guess it will move on, and on….
And it is being captured on video to be broadcast on Thursday 6 October in cinemas across the world