On Theatre

A bumpy flight

Sheridan’s The Rivals plot is taken to different heights

Illustration of Anne Mcelvoy's face

This article is taken from the October 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Richard Bean is a paradoxical talent — a dramatist who can coin broad-spectrum farce and nimble political satire. Most audiences will associate him with the brilliant adaptation of Goldoni’s eighteenth-century farce, One Man, Two Guvnors, a triumph of physical comedy at the National Theatre, back in the days when James Corden was still funny. Little Britain, a fast-turnaround send-up of the newspaper hacking saga also hit the mark, but that is a relatively easy target.

He is also a rare member of the awkward squad in theatre writing, nose-thumbing at the left-liberal consensus by addressing the more complex truths of immigration in England People Very Nice and the risks of climate change researchers veering close to undiscerning activism in The Heretic.

Bean relishes teasing progressive opinion

It’s always hard to guess what Bean will do next and whatever we expected, Jack Absolute Flies Again surprises with a return to the eighteenth century for material, layering the plot of Sheridan’s deft Restoration comedy The Rivals onto the story of a group of airmen on a Sussex base, flying potentially fatal missions against the Luftwaffe.

To which one might ask bluntly, “why?” — a question which is never answered by the high-concept plot Bean and co-writer Oliver Chris bring to the story. Some elements of these two timelines meld well: Lydia Languish (Natalie Simpson) cross-dresses with an accident-prone moustache and adopted contralto in her feminist quest to test the affections of ace pilot, Jack (a dashing Laurie Davidson).

Bean relishes teasing progressive opinion, represented here through Lydia’s harebrained schemes for the improvement of the lower classes in the manner of Beatrice Webb: “There are people in the North,” Lydia explains of her plan to seed a citrus farm in Barnsley, “who have literally never seen a lemon.” The bathos is a treat.

Bean, like Sheridan, sees the lower orders of Mrs Malaprop’s RAF-commandeered country house as agents of disruption to the social order. The manipulative servant Lucy (Kerry Howard), who drives the plot by misdelivering letters, swears behind the backs of her employer and, after a pile-up of farcical coincidences, bellows happily into the stalls, “Theatre: innit!”

As Mrs Malaprop, Caroline Quentin is a choice piece of casting. “Cleanliness,” she lectures us earnestly, “is close to Goldalming.” The set, which looks like a child’s comic book blow-up of a fighter plane, is also packed with references to archetypes of wartime fiction and Peter Forbes’s turn as Jack’s overbearing dad, Sir Anthony Absolute, is a perfect reprise of a posh 1940s tyrant: “Be quiet, I’m shouting.”

The play has some heart, not least in evoking the particular intensity of romantic desire when young lives and lustful adventures can be cut short on any bombing run. But Emma Burns as director has trouble controlling the giddy pace of Bean and Chris’s verbal frolics and the marriage of Sheridan’s plot and the wartime themes become increasingly strained. When the end turns sharply to tragedy and a lessons’-learned epilogue, it feels like a forced landing after a flight of froth and fancy.

That won’t stop Jack Absolute flying for a wider audience in a West End transfer as its summer run closes at the National and you can catch it in cinema screenings from October. It’s not the best of the Bean count by any means and the side-splitting moments of One Man, Two Guvnors are sparser, but even his misses have a comic assurance that is all too rare on the National — or any other — stage.

A little light Sondheim had been planned as the centrepiece of the Old Vic’s new season. So far, so cheering, except that the theatre then allowed a protest by members of its artistic development scheme to cancel the production of Into the Woods co-directed by Leah Hausman and the Monty Python veteran Terry Gilliam because they took umbrage at the outré sense of mischief Gilliam has exhibited for over half a century, winding up one kind of establishment or another.

It would indeed make the perfect fodder for a Richard Bean farce, given that Gilliam’s offence was nothing to do with the musical. He had been keen to defend the outspoken US comedian, Dave Chappelle, and to announce himself wryly as a “black lesbian in transition”.

The play has some heart, not least in evoking the particular intensity of romantic desire

The Old Vic has made a terrible error in caving in to a small internal pressure group. A precedent has been set that any director or writer whose extraneous comments on some front in the expanding culture wars can have their deals broken at whim.

Some common sense prevailed: Into the Woods has been picked up by Bath Theatre Royal in a fantastical, playful reprise of one of Sondheim’s more whimsical creations. It features a large fairytale golden egg, here “Made in China”, the classic Monty Python oversize foot, and a giant who turns out, in Lewis Carroll’s manner, to be a doll.

The lyrics are a bit meh by Sondheim’s standards and the Freudian take on fairytales feels more quaint than some of his more durable works. But it’s a blessing that the show went on somewhere. As the great librettist wrote elsewhere, “Send in the Clowns. Don’t bother: they’re here.” A message the Old Vic’s clueless management might take to heart.

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