Once in a Lifetime
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Harry Enfield leads the cast of this flimsy but fun Hollywood satire
Usually the Young Vic is the absolute last theatre on the planet you'd look for a piece of fluffy escapism. But in a pleasingly against type piece of seasonal programming it's waved 'auf wiedersehen' to its usual diet of left field European-style theatre and said 'hiya' to Moss Hart and George S Kaufman's daft 1930 screwball comedy about the dawn of the age of the talking picture.
May Daniels (Claudie Blakley), George Lewis (John Marquez) and Jerry Hyland (Kevin Bishop) are a pair of small time vaudeville performers and their manager. Jerry happens to catch Al Jolson's talkie film 'The Jazz Singer' and intuits that the whole movie industry is about to change and that there's a lot of money to be made - so he packs them on a train to LA with only the vaguest sense of what they're doing. What follows is a cheerily ludicrous caper that sees the trio's collective star rise, fall and rise even higher as they attempt to ingratiate themselves with Hollywood mogul Glogauer (Harry Enfield, making his theatre debut).
It's a slightly peculiar play that feels like it probably would itself have itself been the screenplay for a talkie had it been written a few years later – it’s light as a feather and shallow as a puddle. It’s also incredibly silly, and I had somewhat mixed feelings about the mounting glibness of a second half that provides a lot of laughs but no great payoff.
Still, it’s clearly a labour of love for director Richard Jones, and the amount of detail lavished on it is a thrill, from the fleeting montage-like scenes of life in the studio shown to us by Hyemi Shin’s revolve set to Nicky Gillibrand’s beautiful period clothes. Blakley is superb as the sardonic, slightly downcast May – her cynicism cuts through what I took to be a deliberately mannered performance style. Enfield is interesting: he’s actually pretty good, but there’s something about his excess of mannerisms – the limp, the vacant semi-grin, the deliberate slowness – that feel closer to him ‘doing’ a comedy character than acting in the same style that the rest of the cast is. (Maybe that’s unfair: if you grew up with him on the telly it’s just weird to see him acting).
Still, it feels like Jones and team have done exactly what they set out to do. And in a season when even the pantos are banging on about Brexit and Trump, a piece of genuine escapism is no bad thing.