JACK ABSOLUTE FLIES AGAIN
by Richard Bean and Oliver Chris
based on Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals
Directed by Emily Burns
National Theatre/Olivier – until 3 September 2022
Watching Richard Bean and Oliver Chris’s breezily funny, good-hearted variation on Sheridan’s evergreen comedy, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the National has found a natural successor to One Man Two Guv’nors. The parallels are clear: both are based on classic texts (One Man adapted Goldoni’s The Servant To Two Masters to a 1960s British setting), both feature sumptuous and inventive set designs, cartoon-like but gorgeously vivid, by Mark Thompson, and both temper the farcical hilarity with an undertow of gentle melancholy.
Furthermore, co-authors Bean and Chris worked on both shows (Bean as writer, and Chris as wondrously daft upper class twit Stanley Stubbers in the original NT, West End and Broadway runs of One Man Two Guv’nors.) I fully expect this new comedy to be another solid hit, something that, Follies and Small Island aside, hasn’t been hugely common on the epic but challenging Olivier stage in the last half decade.
Jack Absolute Flies Again relocates The Rivals to a bucolic Sussex village – all cut glass vowels and cut grass lawns – during the Second World War. Absolute and Lydia Languish – the Beatrice and Benedick of Restoration Comedy – are now RAF pilots (Natalie Simpson and Laurie Davidson sparkle winningly) and language mangling Mrs Malaprop (Caroline Quentin in uproariously fine form) is now a merry ‘lady of the manor’ with an unexpectedly raunchy past. The humour is more belly laughs than sophistication, but there are moments when it’s almost impossible possible to stop laughing.
The supporting cast are a delightful rogues gallery, from Kerry Howard’s knowing maid, James Corrigan as an adorable, clueless Aussie fighter pilot, to Jordan Metcalfe and Helena Wilson as an über-posh, totally crazy secondary couple, everybody scores their laughs unerringly. This applies to nobody more than Peter Forbes’s gloriously deadpan, joyously disagreeable Sir Anthony Absolute. An absolute monster of a man, insensitive, bullying, misogynist…and sheer comedy gold. Forbes plays him to the hilt.
There’s lovely, touching work from Tim Steed as a closeted RAF man, and if TV star Kelvin Fletcher seems slightly less polished than his cast mates that sort-of works for a Northern innocent adrift in rural Sussex, and I suspect his performance will grow in authority as the run progresses.
Jack Absolute Flies Again isn’t perfect: the second act could lose about twenty minutes playing time and some of the running jokes don’t so much fly as get run deep into the ground. There is a plot development late in the second half that deviates massively from the original Sheridan and it’s a bit of a gut wrencher, plus it doesn’t actually happen on stage but via a series of impressive but bewildering projections. It does also mean that a, for the most part, larky evening ends on a melancholic note and one can’t help but long for another burst of the exhilarating jitterbug number (choreography by Lizzi Gee) that lights up a flashback sequence, to round off the evening and send audiences out on an even greater high.
Nonetheless, this is a rollicking good time and may, I suspect, be around a lot longer than the current scheduled summer season. The National’s resources have seldom been thrown at such a mass populist crowd pleaser in recent years….and I’ve no doubt ticket buyers will repay accordingly. Huge fun.