National Theatre (venue)
14 July 2022 (released)
16 July 2022
Jack Absolute Flies Again has everything goes for it. It revives Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s classic Restoration comedy The Rivals, it has one of the all-time great comedy characters in Mrs Malaprop, an interesting new setting (World War Two) and marquee names both on stage (Caroline Quentin plays the language-mangling Malaprop) and off with the script co-written by Richard Bean, of the acclaimed One Man, Two Guvnors with actor Oliver Chris.
The plot revolves several RAF pilots who have billeted on Mrs Malaprop’s estate in Sussex. Jack Absolute (a robust Laurie Davidson) and his fellow male pilots – all young, dumb and full of courage – fight the Germans in the air and each other on the ground as the unattached ones try to gain the affection of their colleague Lydia Languish (played feistily by Natalie Simpson). Lydia meanwhile has her eyes on the hunky plane mechanic Dudley Scunthorpe who, in his turn, pines for Malaprop’s maid Lucy. Meanwhile, Absolute’s father Sir Anthony and Mrs Malaprop plot the union of their two families.
It should work but doesn’t. That may be down to the play’s much-delayed appearance - it was due to debut in 2020 to coincide with the 80th anniversary of the Battle of the Blitz. Since then, it has changed director (Emily Burns has taken over from Thea Sharrock) and actors James Fleet and Richard Fleeshman have left to be replaced by Peter Forbes and 2019’s Strictly Come Dancing winner Kelvin Fletcher.
It certainly isn’t down to the acting. The entire cast does well, aided and abetted by some wonderful physical comedy care of Spymonkey’s Toby Parks. Kerry Howard as the maid Lucy is superb, frequently breaking the fourth wall and making sly comments referencing modern issues (when asked by Malaprop whether it is a gentleman at the door, she retorts “should I count his chromosomes?”) and is responsible for much of the comic sending up of theatrical conventions.
If anything, it’s most likely down to a script which pumps in as much and as many different types of humour as possible. Sight gags, slapstick, puns, filthy interjections, mistaken identities and more are all in there. Some of it really doesn’t work. Quentin as Malaprop starts off with some enjoyably tart references to her role introducing Mrs Malaprop is a batty old dowager before commenting that unfortunately Imelda Staunton was unavailable and Helen Mirren told the director would tell him when she felt old enough to play Malaprop. Once the malapropisms start though, they are relentless and after a few more like “let me show you around my piles”, it becomes like fingernails dragging down blackboards.
As a farce, it works fine with a well-tuned plot which twists the characters every which way in their search for love even if – highly unusual for a farce – we do end up liking them all. Visually, the set is bright and sparky and the battle projections add real atmosphere and gravitas to what could otherwise be pure escapism. On any other level, it fails: the messaging is inconsistent (are we meant to be thinking or laughing at the issues raised?), the pacing is slapdash and the humour is all over the place: when it is not too much, it is too predictable as in when some flowers are described as clematis (no prizes for guessing which body part Mrs Malaprop calls them by).
Ultimately, Jack Absolute Flies Again reaches for the skies but ends up being more of a cruise-ship comedy.