Young Vic Theatre, London (***)
The birth pangs of Hollywood. Everyone wants a piece of the action and Moss Hart and George Kaufman’s Once in a Lifetime, opening in 1930, caught the mad, irrepressible flavour of what was to become a major influence in the shaping of western 20th century culture.
With its kooky look at the characters drawn to California’s movie gold rush, Once in a Lifetime took a comic swipe at the coincidental, accidental happenings that turned opportunists into cinematic frontiersmen and women. It’s a comedy made for big performances, satire writ large to the point of caricature.
Back nearly 40 years ago, the RSC produced what must now be regarded as a definitive British version that could boast a cast of Zoe Wanamaker, Richard Griffiths, Peter McEnery and David Suchet – all just beginning, like their Hollywood counterparts, to make waves.
Griffiths played the larger than life `wise idiot’, George Lewis whose dumbness is mistaken for genius by studio boss, Glogauer, then played by a young Suchet. Wanamaker was the smart, laconic May Daniels, who with George and McEnery’s Jerry make up a down-on-their-luck vaudeville act. It is Jerry who sees the potential of the newly arrived `talkies’ and pushes the trio into seeking their fortunes out West.
Richard Jones’ Young Vic production carries some equally headlining names – Harry Enfield as the blundering, dictatorial Glogauer, tv star and comedian Kevin Bishop as Jerry, Claudie Blakley as May and John Marquez as George.
As both an opera as well as theatre director, Jones’s trademark has always been his visual flair. And Once in a Lifetime with its backstage studio and offstage sets offers plenty of scope which Jones grabs with a series of revolving tableaux and swinging doors.
Unfortunately, the busyness of the production seems to have overtaken the skills of the cast. Unusually for the Young Vic, for once, this is a production that looks and feels under par. Lacking in physical zip and with dialogue demanding real dynamism but not always present here, laughs are in short supply.
The day is saved not by Enfield or the usually reliable Blakley but Marquez, gullible and making much of extravagant gestures. He is very funny as too is original Kneehigh regular, Amanda Lawrence as Glogauer’s harassed secretary, Miss Leighton. Daniel Abelson, too, provides valuable pace and a Gene Wilder manic quality to Laurence Vail, an under-used New York playwright brought out West driven demented by artistic neglect.
There are colourful cameos too from Hart and Kaufmann’s other larger-tha-life creations: Lizzy Connolly as George’s love interest but talentless leading lady, Susan Walker, Lucy Cohu’s glamorous Hollywood gossip columnist, Helen Hobart (presumably based on the notorious Hedda Hopper) and Otto Farrant’s young German tyro director, Kammerling.
With its comic grotesques and feel-good factor, Once in a Lifetime is the perfect Christmas schedule filler which is why it so often seems to appear around this time. It doesn’t ask much of its audience, just to enjoy its Hollywood burlesque.
This seemed to be the case by the end but in truth, Jones fails to make the most of what’s on offer from both cast and script.
Once in a Lifetime runs at the Young Vic to Jan 14, 2017
Review first published on this site Dec 11, 2016
Once in a Lifetime
By Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman Adapted by Christopher Hart
Laurence Vail/Leading Man: Daniel Abelson
Jerry Hyland: Kevin Bishop
May Daniels: Claudie Blakley
Porter/Meterstein/Studio Hand: Okorie Chukwu
Helen Hobart: Lucy Cohu
Susan Walker: Lizzy Connolly
Mrs Walker: Buffy Davis
Tenor/Sullivan/Flick/Bishop: Adrian Der Gregorian
Glogauer: Harry Enfield
Ernest/Kammerling: Otto Farrant
Florabel Leigh/Weisskopf/Studio Girl: Amy Griffiths
Miss Leighton: Amanda Lawrence
George Lewis: John Marquez
Direction: Richard Jones
Design: Hyemi Shin
Costumes: Nicky Gillibrand
Light: John Clark
Sound: Sarah Angliss
Choreography: Lorena Randi
Casting: Julia Horan CDG
Voice & Dialect: Rick Lipton
Costume Supervisor: Catherine Kodicek
First perf of this production of Once in a Lifetime at Young Vic Theatre, London, Nov 25, 2016