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Jack Absolute Flies Again at the Olivier Theatre

As you enter the Olivier auditorium, what catches your eye is the enormous World War II fighter plane suspended from the ceiling with the title of the play Jack Absolute Flies Again emblazoned upon it. Below it on the vast stage is a large stately home, a Nissan hut some chairs and tables and a propellor. Music from the period is playing from the likes of George Formby and Bud Flanagan – we are firmly in 1940 at the time of the Battle of Britain. As the music stops and the lights go down, Caroline Quentin dressed to the nines enters the stage and proceeds not only to break the fourth wall but to smash it into oblivion as Mrs Malaprop she addresses the audience to tell us that she’s only here as Imelda Staunton turned down the part and Helen Mirren told the producers that she would tell them when she was old! She then sets the scene with a malapropism in every sentence for the play is an updated version from Richard Bean and Oliver Chris of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals the 1775 restoration comedy.

Laurie Davidson (Jack Absolute) and Peter Forbes (Anthony Absolute) in Jack Absolute Flies Again at the National Theatre_0837. Photo by Brinkhoff-Moegenburg.
Laurie Davidson (Jack Absolute) and Peter Forbes (Anthony Absolute) in Jack Absolute Flies Again at the National Theatre_0837. Photo by Brinkhoff-Moegenburg.

As Mrs Malaprop leaves the stage, various fighter pilots appear and tell their stories of heroism and derring-do in the skies above the south coast. They brag about what they’d done and how many of the Hun they’d shot down and how they lived to tell the tale. There’s Bob ‘Wingnut’ Acres (James Corrigan), the archetypal dumb, larrikin Aussie, the shy and virginal Roy Faulkland (Jordan Metcalfe), the Indian poet Bikram ‘Tony’ Khattri (Akshay Sharan), the square-jawed and heroic Jack Absolute (Laurie Davidson). The four exchange RAF banter as the adrenalin courses through their veins after their dangerous exploits – there’s so much banter that there’s a glossary in the programme.

We’re then introduced to the other characters in the story. There’s the modern feminist Lydia Languish (Natalie Simpson) who’s a plane delivery pilot – that was the only way women could fly during the war, Lucy (Kerry Howard) Mrs Malaprop’s feisty maid, Dudley Scunthorpe (Kelvin Fletcher) a plane fitter, Brian Coventry (Tim Steed) the officer who controls the pilots’ schedule, Sir Anthony Absolute (Peter Forbes), a high-ranking officer in the army and Jack’s father and Julia Melville (Helena Wilson), Sir Anthony’s driver.

After the pilots arrive, the plot such as it is goes into overdrive with Jack and Bob as rivals for Lydia’s affections although Lydia fancies Dudley the bit of rough although the Dudley she likes is really Jack in disguise. Dudley is in love with Lucy who feels the same way but she’s confused by Jack’s disguise and he doesn’t seem to want her. Also, Roy and Julia are a couple although they’re cousins and are desperate to “do it”!

The play starts fast and gets faster as the jokes come thick and fast. It’s part restoration comedy, part farce and part mayhem. There are pratfalls, people falling through doors, characters hiding behind curtains, fights and lovemaking – all the tropes of farce through the ages. There are poo jokes, willy jokes, “doing it” jokes – it’s rude, lude and occasionally very crude – the fun never stops and at times you miss punchlines as you’re still laughing at the previous joke.

The production is big as you would expect in the National’s biggest space. Rooms slide in and out and characters appear from holes in the ground. There are big, cinematic projections of dog fights accompanied by bangs and flashes – at times it’s an immersive experience. There’s even a superb big dance number that includes all the cast and a glitter ball.

To compete with this, the performances have to be big, bold and brash epitomised by Caroline Quentin’s larger-than-life Mrs Malaprop who is just wonderful and stops the show with her singing, ukulele playing and her splits as she tries to seduce Sir Anthony (yet another love story to complicate the plot). Peter Forbes is magnificently over the top as the bumbling army officer channelling his inner Major Bloodnok (younger readers will have to look him up). The other standout performance is from Kerry Howard as Lucy the mischievous maid who spends a lot of her time when not chasing Dudley addressing the audience to tell them that you should never give a maid a letter to deliver, “it’s just theatre” and she’s just a theatrical device – this is a very meta play that never takes itself too seriously.

In 2011, Richard Bean adapted another 18th-century farce for the National. One Man Two Guvnors became an enormous hit and went onto a West End run before transferring to Broadway. It looks like with Jack Absolute Flies Again, he may have done it again. There are some who say that an institution like The National Theatre should not be putting on broad material like this but audiences will love it and everyone needs a hit – even The National!

4 stars

Review by Alan Fitter

July 1940. After an aerial dog fight, Pilot Officer Jack Absolute flies home to win the heart of his old flame, Lydia Languish.

Back on British soil, Jack’s advances soon turn to anarchy when the young heiress demands to be loved on her own, very particular, terms.

Bob ‘Wingnut’ Acres – James Corrigan
Peter Kingsmith / US Roy Faulkand – Theo Cowan
Jack Absolute – Laurie Davidson
Dudley Scunthorpe – Kelvin Fletcher
Sir Anthony Absolute – Peter Forbes
Flight Sergeant Sampson / US Bikram ‘Tony’ Khattri – Shailan Gohil
Ensemble / US Lydia Languish – Millie Hikasa
Lucy – Kerry Howard
Ensemble / US Bob ‘Wingnut’ Acres/Dudley Scunthorpe – Chris Jenkins
Ensemble / US Jack Absolute/Brian Coventry/Peter Kingsmith – George Kemp
Ensemble / US Lucy/Julia Melville – Joanne McGuinness
Roy Faulkland – Jordan Metcalfe
Mrs Malaprop – Caroline Quentin
Bikram ‘Tony’ Khattri – Akshay Sharan
Lydia Languish – Natalie Simpson
Brian Coventry – Tim Steed
Ensemble / US Sir Anthony Absolute – Geoffrey Towers
Understudy Mrs Malaprop – Shona White
Julia Melville – Helena Wilson

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

Jack Absolute Flies Again
by Richard Bean and Oliver Chris
based on Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals
Fri 15 July – Sat 03 September 2022
Olivier Theatre

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