Richard Bean and Oliver Chris’ reinvention of The Rivals in Jack Absolute Flies Again is a comic masterpiece at the National Theatre
“I do love a man in uniform”
Having had my funny-bone resolutely untickled by One Man, Two Guvnors, I was a little trepidatious to approach Richard Bean’s newest comedy for the National Theatre, co-written with Oliver Chris. But I needn’t have worried as their riff on Sheridan’s The Rivals – Jack Absolute Flies Again – is an absolute joy of a production, a joyous reinvention of familiar material and under Emily Burns’ (The Comeback) direction, a masterclass in ensemble comedy work.
Bean and Chris have shifted the action to the summer of 1940 as the Battle of Britain starts but lest you fear for anything too jingoistic, there’s a wonderfully bittersweet tone and a very funny joke about bunting that lets us know exactly where we are. And as the makeshift air base that has been set up in the lush surroundings of Mrs Malaprop’s country pile grinds into gear, a glorious reinterpretation of the romantic machinations of this Restoration comedy slot right into place.
Jack fancies Lydia. And fellow pilots Tony and Bob fancy Lydia too. But she fancies Dudley. And Dudley fancies Lucy who is Lydia’s maid. That’s a rough outline but it doesn’t even begin to capture the intricacies of their tangled web and the sheer hilarity of how it all plays out. Physical comedy director Toby Park has worked wonders with the cast in engendering a loose-limbed physicality that is effervescence itself in so many scenes.
And that lightness is reflected in a script that is filled to the rafters with jokes, so many that repeat viewing(s) of the show are surely needed to catch more of them. The tone is certainly bawdier and sexier than Sheridan but never overbearingly so. And the famed Malapropisms are amped up to the nth degree, delivered with risqué fourth-wall-smashing glee by Caroline Quentin. There’s also a vein of metatheatrical commentary with which Kerry Howard’s Lucy regularly brings down the house, her deadpan delivery is a constant delight in a show already full of them.
But now we’re naming names, it is necessary to go through pretty much the whole ensemble, such is the quality here. Jordan Metcalfe’s spaghetti legs as Roy, Natalie Simpson’s delicious dryness as Lydia, James Corrigan’s Antipodean outrageousness as Wingnut, Akshay Sharan’s poetic missteps as Tony, Peter Forbes’ rambuctiousness as Sir Anthony. Throw in Lizzi Gee’s choreography for a glorious dance routine, a nifty bit of ukulele playing and a beautiful nod to Flare Path at the beginning of the second act and I was in heaven.
At the risk of dropping into theatre critic cliché, it is hard not to feel like Jack Absolute Flies Again has arrived at the right moment. Much delayed by Covid, its summery joy proves an absolute boon and its occasional bittersweet notes act as cathartic release – Mrs Malaprop’s final speech is a thing of wonder in combining the two – hugely entertaining.