4 July 2022
JACK ABSOLUTE FLIES AGAIN (National Theatre, Olivier) Review

I had tickets to see this play before the Covid lockdown, so was delighted when NT announced that they were able to reschedule it.  Having seen Caroline Quentin in “Relative Values” (the review for which is sadly missing) at the Pinter theatre some years back, nevermind my adoration for her TV roles, I couldn’t wait to see her on stage again.

As far as I understood, “Jack Absolute” was written by Richard Bean (who wrote “The Mentalists” and “One Man, Two Guvnors”) and Oliver Chris (of “Green Wing” fame) based on Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1775 play “The Rivals” that was written in the “comedy of manners” genre.  There have been numerous adaptations of this play, and this one transplants it to an English airforce base (or, rather, a country estate that has been commandeered for the army) in 1940.

It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of pantos, so had I known that’s what this was, and had it not been for Caroline Quentin, I would’ve given it a hard miss.  That said, I’m actually glad I went to see it.  It’s a bit of a farce, but mostly a panto:  characters talk to the audience, interact with them, ask for audience participation, give the audience meaningful looks and eye rolls, etc.  It has a bit of charm to it, but it’s neither Frayn nor Coward nor Woodehouse because it doesn’t feel any kind of clever.  You’ve got your typical innuendos, double entendres, exaggerated accents, the lot.

Seeing Caroline Quentin play Mrs. Malaprop (a middle-aged widow who says words that sound similar to what ought to be said, but end up meaning something completely different, such as “anals of history”) is well worth the admission price.  It is genuinely an ensemble piece, but she is one who keeps you in your seat.  Peter Forbes (who I’d seen in Follies in this very theatre a few years back) gives a wonderful performance as a stuffy army general.  Slightly disappointed in Jordan Metcalfe, if I’m honest, whose “Roy” felt like a copycat of David Hyde Pierce’s Niles Crane.  Kerry Howard was a bit over the top and way more panto than comedy.  Laurie Davidson, Natalie Simpson, and Kelvin Fletcher make a fun romantic triangle and have a good chemistry among themselves, but parts of it feel quite forced.

Mark Thompson’s set is a bit cheesy, but it works here.  The battles in the sky are wonderfully inventive.  The only problem is that the pilots’ chatter is completely muddled and illegible.  Emily Burns’ direction seems to falter occasionally in keeping the comedic shenanigans from going off the rails.

At the end of the day, it’s 3 hours of belly laughs.  It’s an evening of humour, joy, and sheer delight of watching Caroline Quentin being marvellous.  After 2 years of lockdown, we can all use a bit of that.

Cheapskate enjoyment value: £5 (£3 of which are entirely for Quentin).

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