National Theatre, Olivier – until 3 September 2022
“What will happen in England after we have won this war? Bunting! Bunting everywhere!” Richard Bean and Oliver Chris’ new play takes R.B. Sheridan’s 1775 farce The Rivals and updates the setting to a Sussex country house in The Battle of Britain. The romantic pursuits, mistaken identities and malapropisms from The Rivals are combined with Bean’s typically bawdy sense of humour, some impressive aerial dogfights and a dose of WWII patriotism. The result is an entertaining, albeit safe and slightly too long, comedy with pathos.
Caroline Quentin introduces herself to the audience as the widowed Mrs Malaprop at the start of the play (Imelda Staunton wasn’t available she quips). Her country home has been overtaken by a RAF unit, Women’s Auxiliary Airforce and maintenance units. Into this comes our protagonist Jack Absolute (Laurie Davidson). Having recently returned from risking his life, he wants to win back the heart of Mrs Malaprop’s niece and heiress, Lydia Languish (Natalie Simpson). She herself has fallen for northern mechanic Dudley Scunthorpe (a great bit of casting in Kelvin Fletcher). Also chasing him is Malaprop’s maid and self-aware dramatic device Lucy (Kerry Howard brilliantly pulling the theatrical puppet strings). Meanwhile there’s an amusing sub-plot involving Mrs Malaprop and Jack’s dad Captain Absolute (a brilliant Peter Forbes further proving his versatility).
From what I gather, the play is pretty faithful to Sheridan’s plot, but Bean and Chris have a lot of fun with the cliched dramatic devices and archetypal characters. They gleefully drop a malapropism into almost all of Mrs Malaprop’s lines and Quentin delivers them brilliantly, knowing which ones to play up and which ones to sneak through. They’re occasionally predictable (when a clematis is brought on stage you can spot a clitoris joke a mile off!) but that’s part of the fun. There’s also some entertaining breaking of the fourth wall to send up the magic of theatre.
Emily Burns’ production is mostly paced well and all the jokes are well received. Most impressive is the false identity scene where Jack dons a northern accent and moustache to woo Lydia Languish and in doing so becomes his own rival. Another particularly funny moment comes when Jordan Metcalfe’s Roy tests how far his beloved’s love for him will stretch. One man behind me was almost choking with laughter as Metcalfe begged to know if she’d still love him if he had no penis, no legs, no arms and just a hole for a face.
The action is played on Mark Thompson’s colourful cartoonish set which looks like a wartime propaganda poster. A cut-out plane welcomes the audience in the pre-set and Mrs Malaprop’s house impressively opens up for the interior scenes. But most notably, Jeff Sugg’s video design makes full use of the stage and side walls of the auditorium for the flying scenes – there are moments where I found myself sitting back and taking in the full scale of the Olivier.
In an interview with The FT, the playwrights hoped Jack Absolute… will not be ‘just a fluffy laugh factory’. Bean has a history of using broad-brush comedy to explore serious issues from England People Very Nice (2009) to Great Britain (2014). He’s also great at writing exceptionally funny plays with dramatic weight: The Nap(2016) and Toast (1999) for instance. Jack Absolute… is on the fluffier end of the scale but there is a darker side to the end of the play which culminates in another dogfight. The outcome of this throws the usual conventions of a comedy into doubt. It gives a bit of weight to proceedings but I understand if some might not be convinced by how needed this is.
The NT’s programming has come under a lot of scrutiny in the past couple of years and they’re due a hit. I don’t think Jack Absolute Flies Again will set the world alight in the way One Man, Two Guvnors did but it is popular fare that’s broadly entertaining, performed by a cast clearly having a good time on a set which makes impressive use of the Olivier. And there’s a nod to Quentin and Fletcher’s time on Strictly too!
Jack Absolute Flies Again plays at the National Theatre, Olivier until 3rd September. It will be broadcast as part of NT Live on 6th October.
The set of Jack Absolute Flies Again. Credit: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg