Writers: Richard Bean and Oliver Chris
Director: Emily Burns
One Man, Two Guvnors was one of the National Theatre’s biggest comedy hits, with writer Richard Bean updating Carlo Goldoni’s Servant of Two Masters and moving the 18th-century play’s setting to a nostalgic version of the 20th century. A success that went on to wow the West End and Broadway; the National is clearly hoping to repeat that success with Bean’s latest.
Cowritten with Oliver Chris (perhaps better known as an actor, including as Engels in Bean and Clive Colman’s Young Marx), Jack Absolute Flies Again takes Sheridan’s 1775 farce The Rivals and transposes it to West Sussex in 1940, where the grounds of Malaprop Hall have been requisitioned and converted into an airbase for Spitfires and Hurricanes regularly dogfighting Messerschmitts and Heinkels.
Had it not been for Covid, Jack Absolute Flies Again would have been staged in 2020, coinciding with the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. Perhaps it is better to put some distance between the commemorations and this comedy because, despite some moments in which the heroism of the armed forces is commemorated, most everyone comes across as more obsessed with the opposite sex than with fighting the good fight.
In this update, Sheridan’s heroine, the heiress Lydia Languish (Natalie Simpson) is an ATA Girl – a pilot in the Air Transport Auxiliary who flew new aeroplanes from their factory of origin to the airfields where they would be put to use. She is, conveniently, the niece of the lady of the manor, the wealthy widow Mrs Malaprop (Caroline Quentin). And even more conveniently, the man she had a brief fling with but hates, Jack Absolute, is an airman on the base that has been set up on her aunt’s grounds.
From there, the romantic rivalries spread out. While Jack pursues Lydia, Lydia falls for the brutish Northern charm of Kelvin Fletcher’s surly mechanic Dudley Scunthorpe, who in turn only has eyes for Mrs Malaprop’s maid, Lucy (Kerry Howard).
The tangle of romantic mispairings is further complicated by the arrival of Jack’s father, Sir Anthony Absolute – who wants Jack and Lydia to marry to ensure the continuation of the family line – and by Lucy, who decides that these upper-class nitwits need to be taken down a peg or two, and muddies matters by wilfully misdelivering – even rewriting – the numerous notes and poems she is asked to pass along.
Howard’s disdain forms the most substantial seam of comedy in a play replete with laughs. Forever belittled – socialite Lydia mangles her Cockney rhyming slang when attempting to pretend that she is down with the working classes, and another airman’s attempts to pass off love poetry, from Yeats to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, as his own fail to account for Lucy being disarmingly well read – Howard constantly wrongfoots everyone. However, while that is delightful, it makes her later reduction into a spurned lover, when she believes her beloved Dudley might be fooling around with Lydia, slightly disappointing.
But there is plenty else to amuse. In particular Quentin’s turn as Mrs Malaprop – a character whose word-wrangling in Sheridan’s original that “malapropism” has passed into the lexicon – is joyous. Quentin revels in a character that is so large and broad that it sometimes feels as if the Olivier’s expansive stage is too small a canvas.
Bean and Chris delight in the lexicographical dexterity required in scripting Mrs Malaprop’s slips of the tongue, a detectable level of schoolboy glee present in the lady of the manor’s increasingly sexual verbal mashups. Quentin matches their enthusiasm with a performance that, if not a career best, certainly comes close.
Peter Forbes’ Sir Anthony, a bumptious Army general, matches Quentin for broad comedic performance. Elsewhere, though, the performances are smaller and never quite match either their cast mates or the demands of the expansive Olivier stage. Laurie Davidson’s titular Jack Absolute is the least interesting character in the whole enterprise, closely followed by Fletcher’s Scunthorpe. There is still much to enjoy, though, from Jordan Metcalfe’s weak-kneed airman to James Corrigan as a dimwitted, naive Australian.
Flying sequences are realised with Jeff Sugg’s monochrome videos projected onto set designer Mark Thompson’s pastel-hued backdrop of rolling English hills. It is in these scenes that the horrors, the risks to and the bravery of Battle of Britain pilots hits home. It is a jarring shift in tone, but deliberately so – and thanks to the engaging performances of everyone involved in the silly romantic antics on the ground, we find ourselves rooting for the pilots in the sky.
It feels unlikely that Jack Absolute Flies Again will have the same success as One Man, Two Guvnors, but it appeals to audiences for similar reasons. Bean and Chris have fused a love of farce with smatterings of seaside postcard-style humour, and a nostalgic sense of a Britain long gone.
The result is a play which frequently, rightly, brings the house down. While Jack Absolute Flies Again may not be perfect, it is still incredibly enjoyable.
Continues until 3 September 2022