Young Vic Theatre, London – until 14 January 2017
“You don’t know anything about anything, George, and if what they say about the movies is true, you’ll go far” … The end of the silent movie era and the arrival of the talkies has proved fertile ground for many a storyteller, not least Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s immortal Singin’ in the Rain, but Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s Once In A Lifetime has a serious claim to being one of the first, premiering as it did in 1930 and its influence is plain to see.
It has received major revivals from Trevor Nunn at the RSC (1979) and Edward Hall at the National (2005) and now it is the turn of Richard Jones at the Young Vic, in a production notable for marking the theatrical stage debut of Harry Enfield.
In a new adaptation by Hart’s son Christopher, Once In A Lifetime follows the trials and tribulations of three workaday vaudeville artists from New York who decide to throw in their lot and ship out to Hollywood. With the first-ever talking motion picture doing great business, they opt to capitalise on the trend by opening an elocution school to help all those actors who suddenly need to speak on screen but even in its earliest days, the crowded corridors of Tinseltown prove a tough nut to crack with any number of wannabe starlets, studio heads and screenwriters competing for the limelight.
It has all the makings of a classic screwball comedy but strangely, it is played at half the pace. The (somewhat thin) plotting is full of farcical shenanigans but Jones’ production is elegant rather than energetic, typified by Hyemi Shin’s gorgeously conceived set which shifts effortlessly from its opening widescreen cinematic aspect to its gliding revolve of near-art installation beauty. So the play proceeds here as a gentle comedy rather than a raucous farce or a biting satire – it is by no means fatal, I did enjoy myself after all, but it was a night of chuckles as opposed to all-out belly laughs.
What does shine through is the quality of the superb company. A never-better Claudie Blakley is wonderfully wise-cracking as May, partnered by Kevin Bishop’s Jerry and a marvellously understated John Marquez as the hapless George who somehow manages to completely defy the odds. Enfield is good value for money as the movie mogul they need to charm, Adrian der Gregorian multi-roles vividly and Lucy Cohu sizzles as garrulous and glamorous gossip columnist Helen Hobart in an array of absolutely stunning costumes and wigs – full credit to Nicky Gillibrand and Cynthia De La Rosa respectively.
Despite the presence of bona fide comedians Bishop and Enfield, the comic plaudits of the night go to the ever-excellent Amanda Lawrence in a hilarious performance as the put-upon secretary Miss Leighton and Lizzy Connolly, in a rare and welcome non-musical role, as would-be actress Susan Walker, supreme in her gaucheness but like so many, able to parlay her ambition into something more. Likable rather than truly lovable, there’s a festive glow to Once In A Lifetime which is undeniable, I can’t help but wish it had allowed its sharper edges to poke through the wrapping paper as well, especially as it comes close to skewering critics who fawn over anything new.