If there’s one thing we could all use after the last couple years, it’s a jolly good laugh, and that’s something that Oliver Chris and Richard Bean’s Jack Absolute Flies Again serves up in spades. Now open at the National Theatre, this restoration comedy (an adaptation of The Rivals), directed by Emily Burns, takes aim at everything, including itself!
It’s a fairly complex, bordering on farcical, plot that sees the Royal Air Force based out the country pile owned by Mrs Malaprop in the 1940’s. Almost everyone has taken a fancy for someone else, but in order for any sort of romance to bloom, subterfuge, impersonation and misdirection are all required.
Given the title you’d be forgiven for assuming the story revolves around Jack Absolute, and to some extent it does, but there’s also plenty of sub-plots and the other characters all get a fair hearing. It’s quite refreshing in some ways to have such an expansive cast, with so much character development, but that also may prove to be a double edged sword.
One thing is for sure, Jack Absolute Flies Again is hilarious; proper laugh out loud, trying to suppress a snort kind of laughter. Some of the lines are so outrageous, you’ll still be giggling at them well into the interval. Most of the comedy is very clever, and extremely well-written, there are a few jokes that are bit too obvious or overly constructed but you’ll probably still laugh.
Where things start to go awry is when Jack Absolute Flies Again starts not being a comedy. It’s set during the war, there are difficult moments to explore, but this play tries to be too many things at once. The result is a near-three-hour long show, and towards the end you start to realise you really can have too much of a good thing.
An incredible set from Mark Thompson sees the Olivier stage used to great effect, especially when the façade of the Malaprop house opens to reveal various rooms of its interior. Also impressive are Jeff Sugg’s video designs, which without spoiling anything, give a real sense of the expanse of the open skies above. The sound accompanying the video isn’t so great, and it becomes difficult to follow what’s actually happening during the dogfights taking place.
Caroline Quentin as Mrs Malaprop is pure gold, as a character prone to malapropism (see what they did there?) every utterance from Quentin results in uproarious laughter from the audience, it gets to the point where Quentin need only make an entrance and the guffaws start.
Laurie Davidson charms the audience like birds out the trees as Jack Absolute, another very funny role but one that also has real heart, and Davidson brings it all to the fore. As mentioned, it’s a large cast and there’s not a fault to be found amongst them.
There’s a brief hiatus from the comedy for a big song and dance routine, wonderfully choregraphed by Lizzi Gee, and for this brief moment you could easily be at one of the big West End musicals, it’s fantastically done and fits that moment in the show to absolute perfection.
Jack Absolute Flies Again is proper good old-fashioned comedy, and will probably appeal more to generations who grew up in the heyday of this particular brand of humour. This is a comedy that’s definitely worth seeing, even if it could have benefited from a little streamlining.
Jack Absolute Flies Again is currently booking at The National Theatre