o, comic lightning strikes twice. Roughly transposing Sheridan’s The Rivals to an RAF squadron stationed in a Sussex country house during the Battle of Britain, Richard Bean and Oliver Chris create something as grouchy and bawdy as Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors , who took comparable liberties with a classic Goldoni.
There’s the same uncontrolled humor, dizzying abandon and metatheatrical playfulness: the same sense of primal urges throbbing below. But Jack Absolute is also completely his own thing, taking aim at British class consciousness and exceptionalism, as well as sexism, xenophobia and ‘warstalgia’.
Unlike OMTG – in which Chris, before becoming Bean’s co-writer, starred in James Corden’s virtuoso central performance – it’s an ensemble piece. Originally slated for 2020, it went through cast changes and the replacement of director Thea Sharrock by National Theater resident Emily Burns, with no obvious prejudice. It’s hilarious, so exhausting.
Here, the verbal wanderings of Mme Malaprop by Caroline Quentin have a dirty side. “Flatulence will take you anywhere,” is one of the sweetest examples, though she also mixes up “clematis” and “clitoris” and talks about “passing a major grind” on her birthday. Malaprop’s freed niece Lydia Languish (Natalie Simpson) has a job in the Air Transport Auxiliary flying Hurricanes to airbases, and a romantic fantasy of being friends with her maid and getting away with it with bluffing North mechanic Dudley Scunthorpe (Kelvin Fletcher).
Jack Absolute (Laurie Davidson) – flying ace, heir to most of Devon and potential lover of Lydia – therefore disguises himself as Dudley. You know, like you do. Sikh and Australian pilots also fall in love with Lydia. Jack’s autocratic officer father (Peter Forbes) is implicated. Intermediate servant Lucy (Kerry Howard) wreaks havoc, hijacking the love notes while giving us a sardonic commentary. Dedicated pilot Roy and army driver Julia offer a counterpoint to the chaos, as well as a touch of melancholy.
It seems heinous to single out the performances, but Howard as the deadpan, brooding Lucy and James Corrigan as the Down Under’s Bob Acres — irrepressible whether repulsed by love or stung by a swarm of bees — stand out.
Sheridan’s absurd web of deception and misunderstanding is here complemented by CGI dogfights, a dazzling jitterbug number, and Ms. Malaprop doing the splits while playing the ukulele. Besides the laddish jokes and slapstick, there’s a sneaky gag on the Bechdel Test, which judges a drama’s feminist credentials. Designer Mark Thompson provides a witty set of dollhouse bedrooms set on an English lawn.
The way Bean and Chris lob whatever they find funny in the mix is bold, but the script is also deceptively finely tuned. This clever mix of satire, grime, clownery, pastiche, wartime bravery and romance absolutely seduced me. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but even the toughest of hearts won’t be able to entirely resist its barrage of machine-gun humor.
National Theater, until September 3; nationaltheatre.org.uk