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Jack Absolute Flies Again at the National Theatre – review

Sheridan's The Rivals gets a wartime makeover

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Kelvin Fletcher and Caroline Quentin
© Brinkhoff Moegenburg

"Let me show you around my piles," offers Caroline Quentin's Mrs Malaprop at the opening of this uproarious take on Sheridan's The Rivals from Richard Bean and Oliver Chris. She's the owner of Malaprop Hall, which has been requisitioned by a disparate group of fighter pilots during World War Two, among them the flying ace Jack Absolute (Laurie Davidson), who happens to have history with Malaprop's niece Lydia Languish (Natalie Simpson).

Bean takes a similar approach as he did with The Servant of Two Masters, which he spun into National monster hit One Man, Two Guvnors. While taking some liberties with the plotting, he and Chris keep faithfully enough to the original that it is still recognisable, whilst concurrently creating something that is entirely its own entity. One key moment at the end very much separates it from the source, and finds a surprising amount of poignancy amid the hilarity (it's worth noting the play was originally scheduled to coincide with the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain).

Jack's principal rival for Lydia's affections is tattooed Yorkshire mechanic Dudley Scunthorpe (Kelvin Fletcher), who in fact loves Malaprop's maid, Lucy (Kerry Howard). But he must also fend off interest from brash Australian pilot Bob (James Corrigan) and Bikram ‘Tony' Khattri (Akshay Sharan), with his poetic aspirations ("let me give you my eyeballs"). Meanwhile, his uptight best mate Roy (Jordan Metcalfe) is desperate to consummate matters with his newly emancipated cousin Julia (Helena Melville), while Mrs Malaprop has her own designs on his overbearing father, Sir Anthony Absolute (Peter Forbes). Got it?

Director Emily Burns marshals the action on the notoriously expansive Olivier stage with pin-point precision and although long, at nearly three hours, it rarely drags. There are some lovely bits of business, a stand-out being when Roy attempts to squeeze past an unmoving Sir Absolute in a doorway (Spymonkey's Toby Park is credited as physical comedy director). The malapropisms are somewhat overcooked – there are far more than in the original – but there is some delightful wordplay elsewhere; Lydia's botched attempts to speak in rhyming slang to Lucy ("would you Adam and believe it"), or Bob's matter-of-fact Aussie-isms ("I'm not used to grass"). Designer Mark Thompson's cartoonish set evokes both the open fields and over-decorated rooms of Malaprop Hall, including its impressive arras.

There are influences ranging from Blackadder to Terence Rattigan. The gags come thick and fast – if, like me, your humour tends towards the puerile, you'll have a whale of a time – but underneath it all is a serious cap tip to the spirit of ‘the few'. It doesn't have quite the range of set pieces that featured in Guvnors, though the second act includes a glorious jitterbug dance sequence (credit to choreographer Lizzie Gee).

The performances are uniformly (no pun intended) superb, and the company have an infectious joie-de-vivre. Quentin in particular sparkles, and a mention should also go to Tim Steed's quietly spoken, gay base manager Brian Coventry, who steals some of the best lines and reminds us that not everything about the wartime attitude was admirable.

Although the pandemic delayed its premiere, Jack Absolute Flies Again proves the perfect tonic to the miserable few years we have been through. Those concerned that lightning couldn't strike twice after the runaway success of Guvnors should rest easy; it's a riot. So strap yourself in, and chocks away.