Jack Absolute is the humorously deceitful, arch mischief-maker in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals, which specializes in love, farce, fake identities, and 18th-century social satire.
Jack Absolute Flies Again Review: Failure to Take Off for a Wartime Comedy of Manners!
Richard Bean and Oliver Chris drew inspiration from Sheridan’s comedy of manners and combined it with warm, nostalgic, oh-so-British wartime humor.
The drama is set in Malaprop Mansions, which temporarily houses a Second World War RAF office staffed by Jack (Laurie Davidson) and the woman of his dreams, Lydia Languish (Natalie Simpson), who is also a pilot.
In this translation, the absurdity and humor occasionally kindle, but Sheridan’s razor-sharp lines and social class critiques are largely rendered toothless.
The humor is, for the most part, as predictable as the verdant pastures and rolling hills of the attractively confined set built by Mark Thompson; we anticipate the expected punchlines.
Lydia has a desperate infatuation with the working-class northern mechanic Dudley Scunthorpe, who is portrayed by Kelvin Fletcher.
Sir Anthony Absolute (Peter Forbes), Jack’s father, appears to be channeling an aristocratic version of Battery Sergeant Major Williams from It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. (“Quieten down, I’m shouting!”)
Mrs. Malaprop (Caroline Quentin), a figure so brilliantly designed that her name reached the dictionary, speaks with an excessive number of malapropisms, so diminishing their comedic value.
She has a cake “to relish my birthday” and conflates clitoris and clematis, resulting in increasingly strained language. Others use profanity, discuss erections and orgasms, and there are double meanings for “tits” and “trust engines,” but the plethora of double entendres sounds quaint and nostalgic rather than risqué, like a scene from carrying On, Sheridan.
After the more popular The Corn Is Green at the Lyttelton Theatre, this is the second successive production at the National to depict a sentimentalized image of a bygone Britain.
At nearly three hours on its final night of previews, this comedy felt contrived, unimaginative, and stretched out to me.
As well as Lydia’s position in the RAF, the play does an excellent job of demonstrating that Commonwealth veterans participated in the war effort in the form of an Australian pilot (albeit one who speaks in Aussie-isms for much of the play) and an Indian pilot (“everyone calls me Tony because they can’t pronounce Bikram,” he says in one sharp line) as well as an Indian pilot.
There is a lovely sequence with the second comic couple, Roy (Jordan Metcalfe) and Julia (Helena Wilson), demonstrating the illogic of envy, as well as a wonderful dancing scene between Jack and Lydia. If only this bubbling hilarity had remained consistent throughout.
The serious drama of battle remains in the background with the exception of a Battle of Britain reenactment, but a late plot turn towards sorrow imposes a jarring shift in tone that does not feel earned and reeks of emotional manipulation.
The first staging of Sheridan’s play was suspended in 1775 due to its lewdness and portrayal of the Irish character Sir Lucius O’Trigger, who is omitted from this version.
There are reports of audiences throwing apples (Sheridan swiftly redrafted the play to great acclaim). This time, nobody fears being battered by falling apples. It is too safe and conventional to convey Sheridan’s potentially anarchic spirit of frolic.