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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Once In A Lifetime
Young Vic Theatre  Winter 2016-2017N

An 86-year-old American comedy can still deliver its fair share of chuckles. But its power lies entirely in the script and one central performance, with a lacklustre production, direction and general level of acting contributing far too little. 

Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, writers of top-tier Broadway comedies in the 1930s, here turn their satirical attention on Hollywood at the birth of talking pictures. 

A small-time vaudeville trio decide to cash in on opportunity by setting themselves up as elocution teachers to film actors suddenly forced to conquer their foreign or Brooklyn accents. 

Their fraud is quickly uncovered, but such is the idiocy of Hollywood that the dimmest of the three, parroting random critical comments he's overheard, is taken for a genius and put in charge of a studio. And such is the absurdity of Hollywood that every stupid decision he makes turns to gold. 

Hollywood is such an easy target for satire that the playwrights, elsewhere masters of sharp and wounding wit, don't really have to work very hard to score points, and you might almost feel sorry for the victims for being picked on. 

And it certainly isn't Kaufman and Hart's fault that a quarter century later Singin' In The Rain would cover much the same territory, with songs and Gene Kelly. 

So the really wicked delight of putting the satiric knife to pompous fools who deserve to be deflated isn't quite there. Still, there are some good gags and a level of silliness that can provide an evening's light entertainment.

It would have helped, though, if Richard Jones's production had a hint of theatrical energy, comic sense and just plain zing to it, instead of limping along as half-heartedly and rhythmlessly as it does. 

Christopher Hart, son of Moss, has 'adapted' the book, and I don't know if it is his fault or director Jones's that every scene ends, not with the bang of a punchline, but with the energy-draining whimper of one character or another mumbling inaudibly to himself as the set changes behind him. 

It is certainly the director who somehow managed to kill the running gag about a screen writer hired and then forgotten so that he is going mad while being paid lots of money to do nothing. 

Any time there are more than three people onstage they tend to line up in a row, and keep your eye on the piano unnecessarily planted in one early scene. 

Watch particularly how everyone is directed to squeeze themselves awkwardly around it when they could have more easily and naturally just walked in front of it and then watch them go through the same pointless hugging-the-walls parade in later scenes even though the piano is gone. 

Playing the fool-turned-savant, John Marquez finds and generates all the laughs, despite not having a stage comedian's usual crutches like funny looks or physical shtick. It is a triumph of a serious actor finding the comic character and letting him be funny. 

Unfortunately the rest of the performances range from wooden-to-the-point-of-invisibility (the other two schemers) to the almost community-theatre broadness of reaching for cartoonish excess and achieving only excess (most of the Hollywood characters). 

TV veteran Harry Enfield has chosen or been directed to play the studio head as near-senile rather than as larger-than-life (and therefore deserving of ridicule) megalomaniac, and he just isn't very funny. 

You will get about as many laughs from this revival as from an evening's worth of TV sitcoms, which might well be enough to get you off the couch. And they will all come from Moss Hart, George S. Kaufman and John Marquez.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Once In A Lifetime - Young Vic Theatre 2016  


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