Delayed by covid for over two years, Jack Absolute Flies Again finally lands on the Olivier stage when we have never needed Richard Bean and Oliver Chris’s goofy and hilarious romp more. An adaptation of Sheridan’s The Rivals relocated to a 1940s air base on a Sussex estate, there is a care in the construction of the play and a determination that everyone watching should have a good time that speaks to a wider need for lighter fare. And while the writers of Jack Absolute take their responsibility to represent the airmen of the Second World War seriously and with respect, the shenanigans of Sheridan fit remarkably well into their new context. After years of pandemic, economic woes and political free fall, the National knows that what we all need now is a good night out.
Restoration comedy is something the National has always done well, since Simon Godwin’s marvellous period appropriate production of The Beaux’ Stratagem delighted audiences. The Olivier Theatre is particularly well suited to the farcical revolving door plots with frequent comings and goings, mistaken identity tropes, eavesdroppers and exuberant characterisation that requires a speed and intricacy this space facilitates comfortably. In transferring the characteristics of Restoration comedy to a very particular twentieth-century setting, Bean and Chris have skillfully retained the sentiment, style and tone of Sheridan’s original while updating both the language and, to a notable degree, the morality and political subtext of The Rivals.
Most importantly, Bean and Chris have avoided the trap of the pointless period setting that afflicts most adaptations of Shakespeare primarily but other classic playwrights too, in conscientiously sewing their story into the era in which it is set, recognising and actively responding to the enduring quirks and foibles of human nature as well as the desire to love and be loved that underpins as much of our contemporary theatre as it did at the time of the Restoration.
The Battle of Britain connotations and long held concepts of the chivalric hero-pilot also bring with them their own set of expectations that Jack Absolute both neatly folds into its interpretation and actively challenges in the way that Bean and Chris create characters and define their interaction. The collective memory and consequent memorialisation of airmen tropes were formed in the later years of the First World War and came to dominate perspectives on the role of the pilot in the ensuing years until the Battle of Britain cemented notions of untainted glory, sacrifice and individual courage.
This staging, by coincidence appearing at the same time as another kind of airman fantasy – Top Gun: Maverick which is still in cinemas – plays into these audience preconceptions to an extent by creating a group of largely posh young men larking about in the English countryside with sports and afternoon tea before gallantly slipping into their aircraft and putting their lives on the line to protect it all from enemy violation – and it is notable that they succeed at least in preventing any direct incursions into Malaprop Hall for the duration of the play, saving this patch of green and pleasant land from bombs and preventing the tone from veering too sharply away from the jaunty choreographed confusion and misdirection of its Restoration form.
However, Bean and Chris push their scenario just enough to check the reality and consequences of the hero-pilot myth which expands the vision and sense of jeopardy, facilitating a nicely balanced emotional depth within the constructs of Jack Absolute. The first of these looks at class, making one of the central players a real character in his own right – the false Ensign Beverley in Sheridan’s original becomes ‘fitter’ Dudley, an RAF mechanic with whom both Lydia and maid Lucy fall in love. Though not a flier himself, several references are made to Dudley’s role in winning the war and the skill of the engineers in repairing planes, working class heroes keeping them running while acting in partnership with their pilot. This helps to expand the singular notion of airborne heroism to incorporate the wider teams and systems upon which war functionality is based.
The second uses video and projection technology to create two semi-immersive flight sequences that become integral to the plot and the emotional recognition of the characters, underscoring their entanglements and adding a tender but high-stakes reality that works against the levity of the lovers’ drama. Expanding beyond the confines of the stage to fill the walls and ceiling of the Olivier, Jeff Sugg’s footage of planes in combat sequences performed by the actors, is a device that neatly expands the world before us, surrounding we grounded folk who, like our Second World War counterparts, can only glance skywards as a melee of sound, lighting and video suggests vicious encounters with enemy aircraft. That Bean and Chris so deftly draw meaning and poignancy from their Restoration-inspired play and the fraught context in which it is newly situated is one the many achievements of a production that has both pathos and hilarity.
In updating the text, the writers have also given some consideration to female agency both as the instruments of the drama and in managing their own love lives. And while much of that is directed to comedic outcomes, the marriageability of the female roles and their contentment with expected notions of wife and motherhood are given a necessary shake up. Lydia Languish – always a spirited and independently-minded woman – adopts a more feminist perspective through her espousal of socialist principles that she only half believes. Although funny and an opportunity to create a series of scrapes for Lydia, including having her notions poo-poohed by the older generation, ultimately we are not asked to laugh at those aspects of her character, and Bean and Chris craft an ending for her that doesn’t betray her beliefs however little Lydia is shown to know her own heart throughout.
Likewise, maid Lucy is the agent of the drama, the character who confides in the audience most often and in whom rests an awareness of herself as a meta-theatrical tool, frequently commenting on the rules of Restoration comedy and the ‘magic’ of theatre. Lucy deliberately directs the action through the mis-delivery of letters which is done out of malice, jealousy and, usually, bloody mindedness, giving her a directional power over the play and its people. Mrs Malaprop who owns the Estate and Julia who wants nothing more than to marry her pilot cousin Roy may seem more traditional but Bean and Chris give them both a colourful, sexually liberated past as well as plenty of comedy in their own right, allowing them to pass as far more than secondary characters, ones who have a significant effect on the play’s male contingent.
The comedy in Jack Absolute largely emanates from a rapier-like wordplay with touches of controlled physical humour that build the farce to its pinnacle across two Acts staged largely on a single, unchanging set. And the jokes roll continually from the moment it begins as Mrs Malaprop welcomes us all to her home. A great deal of comedy comes from the increasingly inventive ways in which she mangles her vocabulary – some of it positively filthy but said in all innocence – and at times the audience is laughing so hard it is easy to miss a few jokes coming as quick-fire verbiage. And opportunities for humour are quite equitably spread around, the group of pilots each given individual comedic tics that mirror their Sheridan counterpart, as well the witty, often very daft interactions between the household member and military interlopers.
This is nicely balanced with an equally silly physical humour using disguise, character concealment behind bits of set and plenty of japes – anyone familiar with Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors will recognise the style, a lightness that doesn’t take itself too seriously. But Jack Absolute manages to remain consistent in the delivery of laughs at regular intervals throughout and consistently entertaining as the communal atmosphere builds within the auditorium. Replete with running jokes, this kind of comedy is by no means easily achieved or maintained, taking some skill to write escalating hilarity and you may find your cheeks hurt the next day for having laughed and smiled for more than 2.5 hours.
In staging Jack Absolute, it is wonderful to see the National do what it does best in harnessing the power and creativity of its in-house workshops and costume team for a gloriously cartoony but imaginative full set that covid restrictions and theatre fashion has denied for so long. Every inch of the Olivier stage is put to use with a large country house, shed and ‘tin’ office for the airmen in the grounds. The building are printed with flat imagery that imply a comic book inspiration but they magnificently unfold like dolls houses to allow interior sets to slide into place representing Lydia and Mrs Malaprop’s eventful bedchambers. It is all inventively and lusciously designed by Mark Thompson who simultaneously incorporates nods to grand Restoration-era furnishings – the perfect image of a lush English estate with croquet lawns and picnic spots mashed with the spare but evocative utility of the RAF in the 1940s.
This is a true ensemble piece directed by Emily Burns that keeps the energy high from start to finish with barely a moment’s lag across the evening. Caroline Quentin takes advantage of what is her best comic role, a delightful Mrs Malaprop whose rapacious appetites are pitched just right and Quentin never once betrays her character’s linguistic mauling by pushing jokes too hard, retaining a perfect and hysterical innocence at her conversational blunders. Peter Forbes matches her with his take on Jack’s frequently apoplectic and cantankerously old-school father, Sir Anthony, reimagined as an army office in appropriately brown uniform who develops an excellent rapport with Quentin.
Laurie Davidson is a charming hero, full of verve but with an emotional depth that creates audience investment in his story, neatly capturing how the pilots’ relaxed pursuits on the ground were frequently interrupted by the need to fly, and Davidson, like his colleagues, captures that instant switch to professionalism and duty. Natalie Simpson’s Lydia is suitably spirited and humorously full of her own importance while Kerry Howard’s Lucy wins over the audience completely as the cheeky maid. Kelvin Fletcher proves a fine unwitting patsy to Jack’s schemes while pilots Bob (James Corrigan), Bikram (Akshay Sharan) and Roy (Jordan Metcalfe) along with their grounded commander Coventry (Tim Steed) are distinct, sweet and full of adorable quirks.
This premiere staging of Jack Absolute may have had to circle the runway before gaining permission to land but land it really does and fate has delivered it at just the time. Utterly joyous, Bean and Chris’s play is the National Theatre at its best, a sparky Restoration comedy that finds hilarity and poignancy among the pilots of the RAF. Exactly what we need and more, Jack Absolute Flies Again is certainly a high flyer, in fact it’s ace!