Faultless electrocution

Sheridan described The Rivals as a play of “light scenes”, but the light was spun out of some heavy experiences. He had quarreled with his father, the irascible actor-manager and teacher of elocution Thomas Sheridan, eloped, married, fought two duels and saw his name and story all over the public prints (not least because his new wife was the celebrated singer Eliza Linley). ). Young, ambitious and needing an income, Sheridan took the materials of his own life and turned his troubles into brilliant comedy.

Richard Bean and Oliver Chris affectionately rework The Rivals in Jack Absolute Flies Again. Some of the characters, all of the wit and a good many of Sheridan’s snappy lines are here, and they make for an evening of wondrous entertainment. The Rivals is set in Bath in the 1770s, Jack Absolute in the grounds of Malaprop Hall, Sussex, in 1940, when it has become a dispersal area for the RAF. Hurricanes roar overhead and ground crew go back and forth across a lawn strewn with bits of broken aircraft, as well as deck chairs and badminton rackets. There’s a Nissen hut alongside the elegant mansion and the backdrop is a picturebook version of the green and pleasant England being defended.

In his biography of the playwright (A Traitor’s Kiss1997), Fintan O’Toole writes that Sheridan put “a kind of utopia on the stage”, burlesquing reality and favorite romance. Jack Absolute Flies Again offers something similar in the romance of the RAF’s resistance in the summer of 1940, when the Luft-waffe outnumbered them by four to one. The play was written to be performed in the summer of 2020, the eightieth anniversary of the Battle of Britain. As such it was to be a celebration – nostalgic, inevitably, perhaps sentimental. However, as the authors note: “a global pandemic did what the Luftwaffe couldn’t and closed the theatres”. To watch it in the summer of 2022, lockdown over but pestilence far from done, is to have a heightened awareness of risk and intensity, and to be grateful for utopic cheer. It’s a relief to laugh at jokes about bunting, and Mrs Malaprop speaks for many when she declares “I’ve always liked a man in uniform”, adding: “I was hoping for a bomber squadron. A rear gunner who might find a little R and R with me appalling.”

Caroline Quentin is a superb Mrs Malaprop. The accomplished hostess, she totters downstage to welcome us to “the Royal Notional Theater” and introduce herself, “a parsonage of great lexicographical dexterity and faultless electrocution. Not to mention my grammar, about which no one is able to find fault with it.” It’s a role that requires physical as well as lexical dexterity, and this former contestant on Strictly Come Dancing shows she can still trip the light fantastic, be it in boudoir or ballroom. Kelvin Fletcher, playing the unlikely lower-class lust of Lydia Languish’s eyes, Dudley Scunthorpe, won Strictly in 2019, and perhaps for this reason (certainly, there’s barely any narrative excuse) an extravagantly enjoyable dance routine with full glitterball treatment is inserted into Act II. Laurie Davidson plays Jack Absolute with effortless charm and his sidekick Jordan Metcalfe, as Roy Faulkland, should get a prize for his wobbly legs alone. Peter Forbes is a blistering Sir Anthony Absolute, standing square on in army khaki, First World War medals lined up on his barrel chest, barking and bellowing orders to his son while claiming to be calm – “Be quiet! I’m shouting!”. He has a “filly” for Jack to marry, she has 57,000 acres in the Midlands, and “if you want the estate, you must take the livestock with it!”. Jack doesn’t want the estate, he wants Lydia, who, as it happens, is the filly in question.

The Rivals is a young man’s play, and its preoccupations are those of youth: trouble with parents, the complications of love. Novels, plays, sermons and conduct literature in the eighteenth century were obsessed with young women: what should women do, what should they know, what they were for, apart from breeding and servicing men? Sheridan’s Lydia reads romantic fiction and hides Peregrine Pickle and Ovid under the toilet; Lydia in Jack Absolute Flies Again (Natalie Simpson) is a pilot in the Air Transport Auxiliary. She delivers the new Mark 2 for Fighter Command. She quotes Virginia Woolf and reads The Memoirs of a Sexually Liberated Socialist Woman. (Her aunt finds her “as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile.”) “There are four different kinds of orgasm”, Lydia tells Julia, Sir Anthony’s driver. “The good news is that only one of them’s fatal.” With so much nonsense spouted about women, how are men to know how to interpret their behaviour? Faulkland is full of rubbishy ideas, believing he must test Julia, set limits and control her; there’s comedy in his melancholy inability to see or hear her (inexplicable) devotion. Helena Wilson, as Julia, does slapstick to perfection. The one-liners come thick and fast. Inevitably, not all of them land, but a funny play can afford to be prodigal.

Lydia, so rich “she feeds her parrot with small pearls”, wants to give up her privilege, including feeling superior to her maid, Lucy. Lucy, an archly confident Kerry Howard, is not fooled when Lydia declares, “as women, we’re all equals”. She knows better. In one of many direct addresses to the audience she confides: “First rule of Restoration comedy. Never give the maid a letter.” Sheridan’s Lucy wears the mask of simplicity for her duplicitous dealings and makes a healthy profit: letters are delivered or not as she chooses, but she’s always paid. This Lucy, entangled in the love plot and getting goosebumps when she thinks of Dudley, is potentially a victim of Lydia’s capriciousness. “Why are plays always about posh people?” she asks. “Where’s my love story?” This is a good question – her story fizzles out. Nor is much made of the Indian pilot, Bikram “Tony” Khattri (“Everyone calls me Tony because they can’t pronounce Bikram”), who is a “poet, fighter, lover”. Akshay Sharan gives us the self-regarding, sweet-faced poet, but the script doesn’t develop his other talents. His presence, along with Australian pilot Bob Acres (an earthy James Corrigan), is testimony to the historical fact that of the 3,000 or so airmen who fought in the Battle of Britain, almost 600 came from other countries. Many were from Poland or Czechoslovakia. A few came from Ireland, but no Irish pilot features in Jack Absolute Flies Againwhich is perhaps surprising given that The Rivals boasts a stage Irishman, Sir Lucius O’Trigger. But Sheridan was forced to apologize for Sir Lucius and deny he intended “any national reflection” on the routinely maligned Irish in his characterization.

When the handsome men in uniform stop being silly about girls and scramble to face the enemy, they go one by one in full flight gear down an exit that might be taking them into the bowels of the earth. The sky then fills the theatre. Video projections of aerial combat on walls and ceiling bring us alarming close-ups and thunderous noise through which scraps of frantic dialogue, distorted by radio transmission, can be heard. It’s a dazzling spectacle of light and sound, created by Tim Lutkin (lighting), Paul Arditti (sound) and Jeff Sugg (video design).

The mood change is abrupt, but it works. Life on the ground was never stable, although laughter and familiarity made it seem so. The set design nods to convention, as if the only sound to disturb the peace will be the tinkle of teacups, but the too-bright green lawn, the clematis-draped trellis (“clitoris”, according to Mrs Malaprop) the Nissen hut, The cheeky pink bedroom/boudoir where people burst in and out, and hide and connive and misunderstand, and Malaprop Hall itself, the stately pile, are all oddly proportioned. The big house is grand from a distance, but the moment somebody comes out of a door it’s wrong; like Tenniel’s illustrations to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the figures are too big for their surroundings. The house also opens and closes like a doll’s house. When the machinery starts, the wings spread, dark and forbidding, and the whole contraption looms towards us, like the mouth of hell into which the men are flying.

Norma Clark is Emeritus Professor of English Literature at Kingston University. Her most recent book is a family memoir, Not Speaking2019

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