Julia Bright reviews Jack Absolute Flies Again at the National Theatre, a rollicking update on Sheridan’s The Rivals.

There is no doubt, Jack Absolute Flies Again is a hit. It’s a brand-new comedy by Richard Bean and Oliver Chris based on Sheridan’s 18th century satire The Rivals.

This time it’s summer 1940, wartime, and we’re on the estate of Malaprop Hall, a dilapidated mansion set in rural Sussex in a bright landscape of patchwork fields, green-clad Downs, cloud-studded skies, dappled sunshine just like the Shell Underground posters of that era. In front is plonked a Nissen hut.

The action begins with chatelaine Mrs Malaprop (Caroline Quentin) emerging in gardening gear complete with secateurs, trug and an oversized floppy sun hat. Confiding to the audience that both Imelda Staunton and Helen Mirren turned down the role of the batty dowager – and that her understudy, Kristin Scott Thomas, plays the matinees (‘and in French!’) – you know you’re in for some fun.

Laurie Davidson as Jack Absolute
Laurie Davidson as Jack Absolute

Jack Absolute Flies Again Plot

It’s soon clear that the pile she inherited from her late husband has been requisitioned by the RAF as a squad base. Onto the stage stumble a handful of fighter pilots just back after their latest dogfight in the skies and bit by bit their characters unfold.

There’s debonair prankster Jack, lovesick Roy who’s a bit of a wuss, a Sikh called Bikram Khattri (known as Tony as no-one can pronounce his name) and an amiable Aussie, Bob ‘Wingnut’ Acres whose favourite expression is “Nao worries!”. And the women? Well, enter blonde ATS staffer Julia Melville (of the Melville Mevilles) engaged to Roy; there’s upper-class egalitarian Lydia Languish (Auxiliary Air Force) pursued by Jack but whose own passion is targeted at brawny engineer Dudley Scunthorpe who, it happens, is sweet on feisty Cockney wench Lucy (a smashing performance by Kerry Howard).

It is Lucy who causes much of the mischief: ‘All the bleedin’ maid gets to do is oil the plot by delivering love letters to the wrong people!’ she complains. Her mirthful antics are key.

One victim is Mrs Malaprop herself: encouraged by sentiments found in a missive allegedly from Jack’s father, Sir Anthony Absolute, she flings herself full throttle in the direction of the fierce commanding officer, splendidly played by Peter Forbes (“Be quiet, I’m shouting!”). He owns Devon.

Caroline Quentin as Mrs Malaprop, and Peter Forbes as Anthony Absolute, Photo by Brinkhoff Moegenburg

Jack Absolute Flies Again Cast and Direction

The acting throughout by all members of the cast is exemplary. But Caroline Quentin’s performance especially stands out as she lurches, regardless, from one malapropism to another (smuttier than those in The Rivals} “I must remember to tie up my clitoris!” (clematis) and, “It will go down in the anus of history!” (annals) – and incidentally proving that at 61 she can still do the splits in a hilarious tour de force rendition of her character’s previous music-hall history.

The dialogue and banter touch on serious topics too such as feminism, class, foreign recruits and the notion that life can be suddenly cut short, that every heady second should be relished. But it never more than skims the surface for Jack Absolute Flies Again is essentially lightweight.

Kerry Howard as Lucy and Kelvin Fletcher as Dudley Scunthorpe. Photo by Brinkhoff Moegenburg

Direction (Emily Burns) is masterful. Ditto the set, costumes, and music. Plaudits also for the blistering utterly realistic Battle of Britain scenes that immerse the audience in a shattering sound and light show, complete with radio comms as the derring-do pilots track and target their German foes.

The end of the play is a tad underwhelming after such a merry romp. Perhaps it’s meant to be.

Jack Absolute Flies Again runs unto 3 September at the Olivier, National Theatre. Jack Absolute Flies Again tickets can be bought here.

Image: Caroline Quentin as Mrs Malaprop, Photo by Brinkhoff Moegenburg