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FringeReview UK 2022

Jack Absolute Flies Again

National Theatre, London

Genre: Adaptation, Classical and Shakespeare, Comedy, Live Music, Mainstream Theatre

Venue: National Theatre, Olivier


Low Down

Writer Richard Bean and Oliver Chris, Director Emily Burns, Set and Costume Designer Mark Thompson, Lighting Designer Tim Lutkin, Composer Paul Englishby, Sound Designer Paul Arditti, Choreographer Lizzi Gee, Physical Comedy Director Toby Spark for Spymonkey, Musical Director Chris Traves, Voice and Dialect Coach Charmian Hoare, Assistant Voice Coach Shereen Ibrahim, Dramaturg Chris Campbell, Staff Director Cara Nolan.

Till September 3rd



Laurie Davidson‘s Pilot Officer Jack Absolute is describing his ‘knight in shining armour… this stunning Mark 2 Hurricane twists like a greased dolphin in a perfect barrel-roll… But it doesn’t open fire! heading straight for the 109. Playing chicken with it!’

‘That’d be me’ says Natalie Simpson‘s Lydia Languish, ATA ferry pilot of an unarmed plane. Indeed her gun-ports are stuffed with chocolate and brandy. Just a bit slipping off the radar of her sofa then. ‘But if I’d known it was you, I wouldn’t have gone to the trouble.’ Being ultimately straight roles, Davidson and Simpson play a sort of distracted Beatrice and Benedick where everyone else steals the wit.

What a difference a decade – or 29 years – makes. Richard Bean and Oliver Chris famously scored a classic farce in 2011 updating to mid-20th century Goldoni’s 1746 Servant of Two Masters with One Man Two Guvnors. Can they do it again with Sheridan’s 1775 The Rivals?

Jack Absolute Flies Again, set in 1940 – intended for the 2020 80th anniversary – is naturally even more iconic than 1963. In these days where the very party that clamoured for peace (even co-operation) with Hitler now claims the last refuge of scoundrels, oh we need another kick up the Battle of Britain.

So set 23 years before (August 1940), with The Rivals written 29 years after Servant, it’s cheese from the chalk cliffs of Dover. Goldoni’s farce structure can take anything: stock characters freighted with James Cordon’s fantastical troupe, the plot’s ripe for riffing. Sheridan’s very different. Plot’s secondary, and character though well ahead is more than anything else trounced by language. Touch it and the gleam smears?

It’s ripping of course. We lose Sheridan’s language, there’s no choice. Provocateur Sir Lucius O’Trigger gets conflated with a more benign character and the duel turns into a boxing match where a mechanic knocks out three pilots. And a boxing-savvy maid manages one of them before that. That’s by no means the only rivalry. Malapropism though is a sturdier thing. So are prologues.

We’re reminded Sheridan’s original bombed when longer and bawdier. Bean and Chris put bawdy back but not length: at two hours 35 it slips down like a G&T to the roar of Merlin engines. And Paul Englishby’s jazzy score.

We get a lot of that. Directed by Emily Burns who underscores that this adaptation knows what it is (as one director commented), Mark Thompson’s vividly cartoony set of Malaprop Hall scores: croquet lawn and dispersal hut front a hinged hall opening to a pink gallimaufry of interiors, usually bedrooms, and other projected rooms. There’s a cheery drop-down Hurricane. It all mixes picture-book with Jeff Sugg’s outstanding video of CGI Hurricanes and fight-scenes: sometimes with Paul Arditti’s sound blasting out of the theatre in a panoramic dogfight, sometimes cheekily referencing crude effects in say the 1952 film Angels One-Five.

Tim Lutkin’s lighting, so steadily August, takes on storytelling in flashes and blackouts. It’s consummate because beyond the laughter there’s a more serious play than its original, hotting up for a disreputable American war. More heartbreaking too. Thompson’s costume design says it quietly, with the wartime dresses flourishing to mufti or pre-war memories.

Caroline Quentin’s Mrs Malaprop gets the (now prose) prologue, and deliciously updates Sheridan’s contemporary Bath and critic-baiting with her own rivals (Mirren ‘when she’s older’, Scott Thomas doing it in French), and so delights in her language that I can’t bring myself to quote spoilers. Except to say in a genuinely moving speech she references ‘the anals of history.’ Oh and guess what Quentin does with clematis. In a mix of Mrs Bucket and former showgirl she sings gloriously and does the splits even better in a sudden wooing – ‘not in the original’ as maid Lucy points out. And swerves to sudden self-correction- which suddenly unkinks wrinkles some might find too liberally applied. You’ll feel impelled to buy the text too. Give in.

Kerry Howard’s Lucy is another reason to revel in the character-acting. Indeed Howard’s a must-see, surely destined for major roles, with a speech critiquing why plays ‘are always about posh people. Beautiful rich idiots falling arse over tit in love’ just as she does herself, where ‘the bleeding maid just oils the effing plot’.

Her part of uber-clever servant supercharged from commedia del-arsy, Howard points vivid lines, plays asides for even more than they’re worth. Howard’s Lucy is central, the real face-off to Lydia when her former slumming mistress hits on the rivet-man Lucy finds um… riveting. ‘Goose bumps on my goose bumps.’

Deliberately mis-delivering, doctoring letters, Lucy trills: ‘First rule of Restoration comedy: never give a letter to the maid’ (a century out, if as here the ‘original’s repeatedly harped on) proves she’s alone ‘read every book in the house’ – several learned lines cut – and like Cordon grabs an audience member, references audience capacity, though it’s not as long and virtuosic as Cordon’s sandwich routine.

Kelvin Fletcher’s nonchalantly can-do, downright Dudley Scunthorpe indeed engages both women but has eyes only for Lucy: to win Lydia back Absolute disguises himself as Scunthorpe, donning moustache and broad Yorkshire, setting physical comedy in train.

Bean and Chris get the max from the two Scunthorpes, misprised identity, and that boxing bout, courtesy of Fletcher’s vividly-etched character being a champion – well no-one really knows of what weight  – but his blows are bone-crunching.

The secondary upper-class pair are a delectable double-act. Subtle Helena Wilson’s Julia Melville has less to do than some of her roles, but here radiates mild perplexity at wishing herself dwindled into a wife, sort of. And to Jordan Metcalfe’s hapless Roy Faulkland too. Metcalfe turns the dimwit pratfaller into a decisive, even noble character, by way of crashing onto a brewery roof (not dead but dead-drunk) and losing his virginity with Julia in a pub honeymoon.

Another double-act is equally winning as James Corrigan’s Aussie Bob ‘Wingnut’ Acres crashes from one lavatorial bad-moment joke to another, hopelessly courting Lydia when he can remember, turning up as a beekeeper and boxer (distractions mean his coach Lucy keeps accidentally flooring him, courtesy Spymonkey’s Toby Spark) to take on Scunthorpe.

Akshay Sharan’s  winkingly florid Bikram ‘Tony’ Khattri in fact brings one touching moment at the end, where he finally delivers his own poem. Plagiarising before now he reveals more of Lucy’s omniscience, ruthlessly identifying every famous poem he steals, even a single word of Tagore’s. When she finally pronounces to the others ‘it’s original’ it seals a jouissance between Sheridan and Bean and Chris.

Peter Forbes’ Sir Anthony Absolute is nailingly bullying (to Jack) bellicose – and bumbling in his sudden discovery of who Mrs Malaprop was in 1903, setting another romance ‘not in the original’ as a delicate consolation. He even snitches a line from London Assurance ‘and I miss him’ – oh really! Forbes puffs into an authentic bellows general as Sir Anthony delivers racism as an afterthought, not lost on Khattri who worsts him.

In introducing characters the writers remind us a quarter of The Few arrived from abroad, colonial and diverse: like E R Braithwaite of To Sir With Love who flew Spitfires in this battle. They’d be illegal immigrants now. It’s a serious corrective, just as ATA Officer Languish delivers Hurricanes.Tim Steed’s Brian Coventry, wistfully overlooked, mild and perpetually misnamed by Malaprop till he isn’t (registering a shift in tone) is always on the point of letting his sexuality slip. Again the writers allow a thread; Steed gives a smile to solitude.

‘I’m my own rival’ Davidson‘s character laments, and this doppelganger moment’s to relish as he circles Simpson who barrel-rolls. They manage colloquies when seriousness edges through.

Simpson’s straight bat to the more-comically written Jack is intended as an axis: Bean and Chris though let character actors fly and nominal leads can get dragged in slipstreams. Making the best of a part slightly underwritten, Simpson (like Wilson, not able to shine quite as she has elsewhere) gets several fine scenes with Wilson and Howard though (like a Handelian soprano-fight), whilst Davidson bounces off everyone from Forbes through Coventry (a kiss, no less) and Howard. His volte-face accents from RP to broad Yorkshire are a highlight. And he enjoys several wrenches to seriousness, as when he refuses to let the blood of a fellow pilot, his German enemy, be wiped off his kite.

New arrivals – Theo Cowan’s Peter Kingsmith, a possible love-interest for Coventry (‘I’m Brian too’), and Shailan Gohil’s Flight Sergeant Sampson – arrive late on. But as part of the jazzy dancing choreographed by Lizzi Gee, they add sheen and weight to those moments where a full ensemble tells: Millie Hikasa, Chris Jenkins, George Kemp, Joanne McGuinness, Geoffrey Towers, Shona White add a desperate luxury to brooding pre-war memories as Jack Absolute  and Lydia Languish recall their dancing minutes: the most touching, life-affirming moments of their romance, already a world away.

Don’t go expecting adaptation. Some will find this over-stuffed – but so was Sheridan in sheer density of reference and versification. Riffling through the original shows how light-touch much of this is, how tight-packed both are. Unlike Goldoni Sheridan’s quicksilver doesn’t so much tarnish as dissolve in globules: its knife of Bath lacks robust translation. What Bean and Chris manage is homage, both to Sheridan’s shade, his early bawdy, and despite everything a memorial to those who laughed at themselves to death. A must-see.