“Jack Absolute Flies Again” – National Theatre

Jeremy Malies on the South Bank.

There are three time periods in this reworking of Sheridan’s The Rivals by Richard Bean and Oliver Chris. Ostensibly we are in 1940 at a Battle of Britain airbase in West Sussex. There is also the undercurrent of the 1770s original and, with the house lights half up throughout to involve us, we remain partially in the present day as the wonderful Kerry Howard playing an all-knowing maid references current events as a pretext for allowing the characters to use anachronistic Gen X and Millennial slang.

 

James Corrigan, Jordan Metcalfe, Laurie Davidson and Akshay Sharan.
Photo credit: Brinkhoff-Moegenbur.

Direction by Emily Burns (resident director at the National Theatre as well as working along the river at the Bridge Theatre) is generally excellent. She marshals the convoluted plot featuring half-serious disguise and mistaken identity such that it develops with seeming logic and spontaneity as well as teasing a performance from Caroline Quentin as Mrs Malaprop that is as good as the material will allow.

Quentin’s character has started life as a variety artist but married an aristocrat and seen her croquet and tennis lawns become a recreational area for Hurricane pilots. Burns keeps a semblance of unity on the over-wrought text and handles the numerous sight gags skilfully. There is also input from a specialist physical comedy practitioner (Toby Park for Spymonkey).

My problems here begin and end with the script. I don’t think Bean has given sufficient thought to the fact that Mrs Malaprop is a victim of her lexicographical errors. A young person who has not previously seen a more faithful version of the source material might think that the solecisms are deliberate and date back to her music hall career. And they are generally dire: “Cleanliness is next to Godalming” and “Flatulence will get you everywhere”. Yuk! I also groaned at Quentin’s limp asides to the audience in which she says that Imelda Staunton and Helen Mirren had turned down her role.

Generally, there is too much going on. Bean has clearly absorbed elements from Terence Rattigan’s Flare Path, and Tim Steed as the senior officer at this RAF base smacks of “Gloria” Swanson, the (probably) gay commander at the base created by Rattigan. I’m not asking that Bean should strip things back to a “well-made play” but less would have been more. Steed produces what for me is the most moving moment of the evening when we learn that he no longer flies having ditched his plane into a burning oil slick at Dunkirk. There is also an unexpected death which is assuredly not part of the original and injects pathos.

 

Caroline Quentin as Mrs Malaprop. Photo credit: Brinkhoff-Moegenbur.

 

The design is evocative and Mark Thompson references the period “See Britain First” posters in his sylvan diorama of the Sussex Downs while the closely observed props and Nissen outbuildings of the air base are like oversized Matchbox toys. It’s all pulled off with imagination and flair as are two aerial battle scenes portrayed in video projection sequences by Jeff Sugg that are technically impressive but must remain only semi-realistic given the generally comic tone.

I warmed to Kerry Howard who should surely develop her career based on this. Her character is a metatheatrical fulcrum. She has many of the best lines and amused me with a running gag that the self-styled poet among the pilots (Shailan Gohil) is trying to pass the work of Housman, Yeats, and Auden off as his own. She amuses with lines such as: “First rule of Restoration comedy – never give the maid a letter.” And yet there is a problem right there. Last time I looked, The Rivals was a comedy of manners (not an unwieldy phrase for Howard to use in her line). Bean is off by sixty-five years which suggests little regard for the source material.

Laurie Davidson as male lead and title character is first-rate, notably in the scene where he must impersonate a working-class aircraft fitter (Kelvin Fletcher) to woo former flame and dance partner Lydia played by Natalie Simpson. As Jack and the fitter (on whom Lydia has a crush) dart on and off stage, he switches magnificently between Received Pronunciation and Yorkshire vowels, occasionally within the same sentence. Davidson turns the whole mood of the theatre on a dime when, after a close-quarter dog fight, he insists that the blood of a young German pilot be left on his Hurricane as a mark of respect.

By contrast, Simpson flounders with a tiresome continuous gag that she is learning cockney rhyming slang but mangling it. And yet this is the actor who I saw negotiate the linguistically dense flirtation between the Masha and Vershinin characters in an adaptation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters by Inua Ellams at this very venue. Simpson excels in Shakespeare and is a winner of the Ian Charleson Award. I can only lay the blame with the dialogue she has been given.

 

Laurie Davidson and Peter Forbes. Photo credit: Brinkhoff-Moegenbur.

There are a few components outstanding pratfalls and split-second timing of entrances that suggest Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors (in which Oliver Chris had a major acting role). But James Corden, who was in the audience on press night, may well be glad that seeing a performance has been the full extent of his involvement.

I would question the whole ethic and motivation of a disappointing project. I don’t believe that Thea Sharrock (originally slated to direct before a delay caused by Covid) could have rescued this. Sure, I’m difficult to amuse but One Man, Two Guvnors  (in which Bean similarly reworked Goldoni) had me short of breath so frequent was my laughter. Fourteen years ago, Bean wrote The English Game which is nominally (with authentic technical content) about cricket. It develops from portraying a coarse club match to include state-of-the-nation elements and moved me so greatly that I scuttled out of the Yvonne Arnaud, Guildford, in floods of tears.

I may be evolving into “Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells” which is only a few miles from my home, but many of those among my peers who I respect have been underwhelmed and even slightly offended by Jack Absolute Flies Again. Might Rufus Norris, artistic director at the National, not have reined in some of the worst excesses? The play has been created on his watch and so bears his imprimatur.

If I had not been on a press ticket and could have left my seat without disturbing others, the coprophiliac humour would have seen me making for the exit within twenty minutes. The line “Do you love her enough to use her pooh as toothpaste?” may stay with me to the grave. Is that in the spirit of Sheridan? Does it belong anywhere?

I would also question what the National marketing team is doing with a clunky and twee promotional video in the style of a British Pathé newsreel (Quentin being particularly unsubtle and giving no hint of the many good things in her performance), which I’m sure will deter would-be visitors of all ages.

On 6 October, a live capture of the production will be broadcast to cinemas worldwide as part of National Theatre Live.