Review: Once in a Lifetime (Young Vic)

Harry Enfield makes his stage debut in the revival of this screwball Hollywood comedy

The Young Vic doesn’t do Christmas this Christmas, shunning bad puns and glitter for something a little straighter than pantomime or festive tale. That said, Once in a Lifetime is still pretty feel-good, funny, populist stuff: a gritty modern production of a classic this isn’t.

Adapted by Christopher Hart from his father Moss Hart and George S Kaufman’s 1930 play, Once in a Lifetime is old screwball comedy gold. Set during the era when the Talkies kicked silent movies quickly out of fashion, the show follows a three-piece washed up stage vaudeville act as they decide to cash in on the fact that movie stars now need to use their vocal chords. They invent new backstories for themselves and head to LA to set up a voice school.

The piece presents a recognisable portrait of a cynical Hollywood: it’s filled with desperate chorus girls wanting to be famous, dumb, vain men and more money than sense (has it changed much?). George Lewis (John Marquez), May Daniels (Claudie Blakley) and Jerry Hyland (Kevin Bishop) manage to hook themselves up with one of the biggest film producers of the time – Glogauer – before being unceremoniously sacked for being, well, rubbish at vocal coaching. It’s when gentle idiot George starts spouting all the things people have said about Glogauer behind his back to the man’s face that things get really weird. Hailed as a genius, George is given the reins to the studio and despite all odds, manages to save him and his friends from ruin.

It’s fairly safe stuff and fun at times – especially with the likes of Amanda Lawrence playing physical comedy cards in the form of the harassed studio secretary. Her timing is perfect, as is Marquez’s show of stupid: he’s soft in the head and heart and he’s hilarious. But mostly this production doesn’t quite lift off. Blakley is as engaging and watchable as always as the mother-figure May, fiercely loyal to her two business partners right to the very end. But the sub-plot of her love-interest relationship with Hyland is skipped over and feels pretty jarring in the end.

TV comedian Harry Enfield makes his stage debut as the cigar smoking producer Glogauer and he does recognisable Enfield: his gormless face and rigid body have been used for more than one of his sketch characters. But he’s fine to watch and delivers on a few of the laughs.
Lizzie Connolly as Susan Walker, the country bumpkin girl wanting to make it big is a delight, playing the character as over the top as it should be and successfully transforming herself into a cardboard cut-out Hollywood diva by the end. She is kooky, awkward and very, very funny.

Hyemi Shin’s slick set is end-on and manages to swiftly rotate from film studio to train carriage to film studio beautifully and the many swing doors enable much slapstick comedy entrance and exits. At times, however, it feels as though the set is made to work a little too hard in Richard Jones’s production, which relies on a strong ensemble cast but occasionally doesn’t give them quite enough room to breathe. Still, the long scene in the lobby of Glogauer’s studio towards the end of the first half where people come in and out of their offices, in a hustle and bustle of movie-making is near-enough perfect.

Ultimately, Once in a Lifetime tells the truth about the entirely bonkers nature of Hollywood, but as Raymond Chandler once said, if you don't like it, you're probably either drunk or crazy.

Once in a Lifetime runs at the Young Vic until 14 January.