If you get a sense of déjà vu while watching Once in a Lifetime, Moss Hart and George S Kaufman’s 1930 Broadway comedy about the early days of talking pictures in Hollywood that has now revived as the Christmas show at the National’s Olivier, then it’s no surprise. That’s because we have been here before, on this very stage just five years ago, when the West Yorkshire Playhouse stage version of Singin' in the Rain – the 1952 MGM screen musical quite flagrantly “inspired” by it – transferred from Leeds. (And, more recently, as in just last year, the same musical was revived at Sadler's Wells with Adam Cooper).
For those with longer memories, it will seem even more familiar. London’s last revival of the play was staged by the RSC it at the Aldwych (where the company was then based) in 1979 and subsequently transferred to the Piccadilly - starring none other than David Suchet, as it does again now, as a larger-than-life film studio boss.
But while that Trevor Nunn production beautifully caught its sense of time and place (and boasted a cast that, in addition to Suchet, also included Richard Griffiths, Zoe Wanamaker and Peter McEnery, not to mention – in smaller supporting roles – the likes of Juliet Stevenson, David Bradley and the late Ian Charleson, amongst others), it now gets a far more comically muted production from Edward Hall.
Everything looks a million dollars in Mark Thompson’s sumptuous sets that press the Olivier revolve into service to bring a huge MGM-style staircase into view from below the stage, and then turn around to reveal the plush, art-deco film studio offices. Thompson’s wonderful black-and-white costumes also look an absolute treat.
And the National has been positively profligate in furnishing Hall's production with a 30-strong ensemble of actors plus seven-strong live band. But, ultimately, it is the daunting scale of the enterprise that also defeats the core of the comedy.
Just as occurred on this stage with His Girl Friday, adapted from another Broadway comedy classic in 2003, the vastness of the Olivier stage that the actors have to fill dissipates the laughs. The louder they try to fill it, the less funny it becomes. Instead of being played from the inside looking out – in other words, from the heart – Hall’s production puts us on the outside of it, looking in.
As a result, this story - about three sometime vaudeville artists who pack up and head off to LA as part of the gold rush that heads there from Broadway with the advent of the talkies - deals not so much with the desperation that fuels their endeavours but starts to look desperate itself.
The strain is apparent on everyone, even as accomplished an actor as Suchet (though he wears his suits – white with black stripes, then black with white stripes – very nattily). But as the trio of vaudevillians, Adrian Scarborough, Victoria Hamilton and Lloyd Hutchinson – in the roles created in the 1979 RSC production by Griffiths, Wanamaker and McEnery respectively – are spirited but too effortful.
- Mark Shenton