Jack Absolute Flies Again is a play the word ‘rollicking’ that could have been invented for. It is a knockabout comedy with more smut and innuendo than a hen night. It is pacily written and staged. There is rarely a moment’s pause and little time for reflection – except in the platy’s attempts at more serious moments (of which more later).
The story is slight and silly – and based very much on the original tale. At its heart, two sets of lovers overcome a variety of not-terribly challenging obstacles to come good in the end. Reimagined from Regency to wartime England it sits well as a comedy of manners – some of which have largely carried forward well between the times. And while themes of class, feminism, race, and war are all touched on they are all treated with the most disposable of touches when it comes to what really matters – the happiness of the core individuals.
It is ironic then that almost everything about this play directs the attention to the supporting characters and cast, all of whom feel better written and more fleshed out than the central four.
In part, this is down to casting. The use of dance routines throughout is a nod to the fact that the two most well-known cast members were on Strictly Ballroom. 2019 winner Kelvin Fletcher is underused in a part that needs beefing up for such stunt casting. At the other extreme is 2020 Strictly competitor Carolyn Quentin who obligingly steals the show, utterly relishing her turn as Mrs. Malaprop – a part so famous it has entered the lexicon. I thoroughly enjoyed this performance, though at times it was so clear that Quentin did too – to the extent that it was sometimes a little too clear that we were seeing an actress revelling in a part rather than seeing the part itself brought to life.
In part, while all the parts are slight, this seems less true in the nuances of both parts and performances from some of the other supporting roles. Particular credit should go to Kerry Howard as Lucy the maid, whose role as a fourth-wall-breaking “dramatic device” is delivered and written with wit and gusto. Equally the understated Coventry, played by Tim Steed had moments of quite moving bathos that the more heavy-handed sequences failed to properly match.
There are times when the action of the play takes a handbrake turn from jovial knockabout to serious and sad wartime drama. It could be argued that in making this change so sharp it reflects the reality of war where such a swift change of mood was inevitable, But here it doesn’t really work for the audience asked to make that connection themselves. Instead, it just feels jarring and like the playwrights lost either their confidence or their way.
Overall, Jack Absolute Flies Again is a rip-roaringly funny comedy. If it were happy to just be that it would be a better, more coherent production. Not everything is served by making a serious point and this play would be much better sticking to and revelling in its comedic niche. It is one it does rip-roaringly well.
- By Richard Bean and Oliver Chris
- Based on Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals
- Photo credit: Brinkhoff Moegenburg
- Olivier Theatre NT
- Until: 03 September 2022
- Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes including a 20 minute interval