Once in a Lifetime ★★★

  ©Johan Persson

©Johan Persson

Sophisticated fun set in Hollywood at the birth of the talkies

When witty Jewish writing duo George Kaufman and Moss Hart wrote this back-of-the-movie-lot comedy, set at the birth of the talkies, neither had been to Hollywood, but they knew enough about the goings-on in the movie business to know it would suit their satirical wise-cracking style. Kaufman co-wrote The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers for the Marx Brothers and this witty habitué of the Algonquin Round Table never lost his sense of sarcasm. He said about one play: “I saw it under adverse conditions; the curtain was up!” The plotlines in their collaborations were primarily Hart’s while Kaufman focused on the witty, sarcastic dialogue.

It’s 1928 and The Jazz Singer, the first all-talking picture, is a sensation.  Three struggling vaudevillians, sardonic May Daniels, smooth-operator Jerry Hyland and their stooge George Lewis, the “best deadpan feeder in the business”, head west to present themselves as elocution experts, hoping to teach movie stars to speak on screen. With help from gossip columnist Helen Hobart, they’re hired by megalomaniac film mogul Herman Glogauer (Harry Enfield making his theatrical debut), who is trying to come to terms with talking pictures. “Things were going along fine. You couldn’t stop making money – even if you made a good picture, you made money.”

  ©Johan Persson

©Johan Persson

The three encounter a proverbial dumb blonde wannabe actress and her pushy mum, a playwright driven to distraction and then a sanatorium by studio bureaucracy, a silent-screen beauty with a screeching voice, and Glogauer’s faithful put-upon receptionist. Glogauer hails dimwit George as a visionary genius, when he is the only one to tell him to his face that he turned down the VitaPhone sound film system. Glogauer makes him head of production and it all goes wrong – or right? – from there…

Director Richard Jones and designer Hyemi Shin set the action on a clever revolve, with lightning-fast set changes rolling through train carriages, offices and studios. The plot gains momentum as the action hots up. Claudie Blakely’s lightly acerbic May sparks off Kevin Bishop’s laid-back Jerry and John Marquez’s increasingly confident and funny George. Lucy Cohu’s wondrously-clad grande-dame columnist exudes authority, Amy Griffiths’ silent-screen star is literally a scream and Lizzy Connolly is deliciously dumb and dumber in a succession of wigs and gowns (all hail costume designer Nicky Gillibrand). And Amanda Lawrence’s receptionist steals scenes without pulling focus – her physicality, the mobility of her face, her comic delivery – she is simply riveting.

Harry Enfield’s Glogauer is curiously understated, though he delivers wonderful lines such as “That’s the way we do things here – no time wasted on thinking” with (dare I say it) Trump-like panache. And more please of that joyous sense of insanity and frenzy demanded by the plot, the lines and the built-in wise-cracking from a Marx Brothers scriptwriter. Richard Jones successfully populates the studio lot with a substantially smaller cast than in the original show. As his production gains pace, it will zip along in the gleeful and effervescent way the silly ploy and vivacious dialogue demand. It’s already a fun evening in the theatre with lots of laughs to be had in the run up to Christmas and a happy New Year.

By Judi Herman

Once in a Lifetime runs until Saturday 14 January, 7.30pm (Mon-Sat) & 2.30pm (Wed & Sat only), note there are no performances 24 & 31 Dec, £10-£35, at Young Vic Theatre, SE1 8LZ; 020 7922 2922. www.youngvic.org