Theatre Review: Jack Absolute Flies Again is unrivalled and unfunny

Jack Absolute Flies Again
National Theatre, London until September 3

The National Theatre used to be very good at putting on big shows that seemed to define specific Christmases or long hot summers. War Horse and Coram Boy come to mind in the first regard. One Man, Two Guvnors I well remember as the summer hit of 2011. When I look back on this summer, I’ll undoubtedly remember it as the one that broke through 40 degrees, but not the time I sat through Jack Absolute Flies Again.

Richard Bean and Oliver Chris’s work purports to be a comedy and they claim some intellectual pretensions – or maybe they seek to excuse it – by saying they’ve based it on Sheridan’s The Rivals. Neither is obvious. It feels like a dull instalment of the old BBC series Ripping Yarns, lampooning RAF-types during the second world war. Just about any role in this rather strange and peculiarly unfunny production could be played by the late Jimmy Edwards or indeed anyone with a handlebar moustache. This is a play that never really gets above that kind of level.

Laurie Davidson plays the young fighter pilot Jack Absolute and Natalie Simpson his love interest Lydia, but to say their relationship doesn’t get off the ground is something of an understatement. His blue blood is a distinct
turn-off for her so he hits on the jolly wheeze of pretending to be a working-class northerner called Dudley Scunthorpe while the real Scunthorpe (Kelvin Fletcher) has the hots for Lydia’s maid.

Lydia herself is a zealous social reformer who flies fighter planes and courageously treats her maid as an equaland dreams of opening a lemon farm in Barnsley as she wants to spread citrus among the vitamin C-deprived masses.

All around them old familiar Battle of Britain stereotypes proliferate – Peter Forbes plays Jack’s jingoistic father Sir Anthony Absolute with all of the subtlety of Basil Brush – and the only even remotely amusing turn comes
courtesy of Caroline Quentin as Mrs Malaprop. There are polite titters as she
explains “Imelda Staunton was not available,” and then she’s off with her
malapropisms, including “Cleanliness is next to Godalming.” Soon she is reduced to making lame jokes about piles (she lives in a country pile, so you can see that joke galumphing into the script a mile off).

There’s a vague attempt at saying something interesting with the character of Bikram “Tony” Khattri – Akshay Sharan – as a great many foreign nationals fought in the Battle of Britain and are too seldom acknowledged, but his character and the idea behind it peters out before too long. It would actually have made most sense to have made him a Polish character since they had the most aircrew involved in the Battle of Britain – 145 in all.

Towards the end of the first act, the director Emily Burns clearly decides the
only way to liven things up is to chuck in a full-screen aerial dogfight. Top marks to the video designer Jeff Sugg for rising to the challenge, but I’m not sure what it really adds to the plot and this sort of thing can never really compete with what is routinely on offer at cinemas.

The idea of playing the Battle of Britain for laughs probably wasn’t a terribly good one to start with, but the play’s real problem is that it doesn’t really know what it has to say, nor does it seem to fully appreciate that any kind
of comedy should at least try to make people laugh. I mean, is it really funny to have Jack say that the only way to ascertain if you are truly in love with a girl is to ask yourself if you would be willing to use her excreta as toothpaste?

All the stuff about northerners and maids being equal to their mistresses is supposed of course to be seen as the best kind of liberal parody, but it is so
clumsily executed that it often seems like ugly snobbery. Is it an affectionate
homage to the men and women of all races and faiths who triumphed in the
Battle of Britain or a Mickey-take of them? I have really no idea. Often it had
a strangely Brexity feel: posh English characters droning on about supremacy over other classes and nations.

Almost all big productions at the National seem to sell out sight unseen these days, but I wonder how long this will continue if they keep turning out big, unfunny flops like this. I don’t say it is as bad as Moira Buffini’s Manor at Christmas, but it’s certainly not worthy of one of the main stages at what is
supposed to be our pre-eminent theatre. This is clearly not a government that cares a great deal about culture, and, with the country facing a worsening economic crisis, it’s imperative that the National takes quality control seriously.

Of course I can see why they thought it might have worked – Bean wrote One
Man, Two Guvnors
and his co-writer Chris acted in it – and the pair clearly
had hopes they’d achieve a similar alchemy with this work. But someone in
authority at the National should have just looked at it and asked the basic
questions “is it any good?” and “does it justify the expense?”.