Jack Absolute Flies Again Back

Jack Absolute Flies Again is Richard Bean and Oliver Chris’s adaptation of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals, first performed in 1775. Jack Absolute Flies Again shifts the action to 1940, to Mrs Malaprop’s country manor house, requisitioned by the Royal Air Force. The Rivals was a hugely successful play, though it was a disaster when it premiered. Critiqued for its length and lewdness, the play was quickly withdrawn and Sheridan hurriedly rewrote the script before it successfully returned to the stage in its new version, 11 days later. While Jack Absolute Flies Again was much better received than that first version of The Rivals, I was nevertheless left wishing for a touch of rewriting.

In The Rivals, the novel-obsessed Lydia Languish is determined to marry the penniless Beverley, against the wishes of her wealthy family. Even the change of proposed alternative suitor from the country bumpkin Bob Acres to the dashing Captain Jack Absolute, son of Sir Anthony Absolute, will not persuade her away from her beloved Beverley. To complicate matters – Jack Absolute is Beverley and has now somehow ended up as his own rival. He’s also the rival of the rejected Bob Acres, and of Lucius O’Trigger, who believes he has been carrying on an epistolary romance with Lydia, but, through the meddling of the servant Lucy, has in fact been exchanging love letters with her aunt, Mrs Malaprop.

Several of the changes Bean and Chris make to Sheridan’s script bring new life and a fresh angle to the play, with direction by Emily Burns. The character of Lucy (played by Kerry Howard) is much more fleshed out than Sheridan’s stock maid: Lucy’s first appearance in Jack Absolute Flies Again sees her questioning the audience why plays are always about posh people, and where her love story is? Accordingly, in a divergence from the original, Lucy has a very sweet courtship with the fitter Dudley Scunthorpe (Kelvin Fletcher). Lucy is developed into a vibrant character, full of determination, sarcasm, and mischief, who perfectly balances frustration at her treatment by her employers and shy infatuation with Dudley. Bean and Chris’s script engages playfully with the formal hallmarks of eighteenth-century theatre (even if it does, to the chagrin of all theatre scholars of this period, describe Sheridan’s work as ‘Restoration comedy’!), including asides, and through these, Lucy develops the strongest relationship with the audience of all the characters. She also embraces meta-theatricality, conducting movements of the set and scene changes like a director onstage, or perhaps a circus ringleader. This reframing of The Rivals to make Lucy a central figure was very effective, and demonstrated the success of adapting, rather than simply staging, Sheridan’s play.

The decision to move the action to 1940 allowed the play to maintain much of the aristocratic social structure that is essential for The Rivals to work – an arranged marriage between Lydia (Natalie Simpson) and Jack (Laurie Davidson) was still very plausible to secure land and income – whilst offering the audience a more familiar historical setting. One highlight of the production was Lydia and Jack’s first meeting at a jitterbug contest, featuring spectacularly athletic dancing, combined with the high comedy of the two arguing whilst they bop to the distinctive 1940s dance moves. The stage design that created this historical setting was phenomenal, with sets that opened up to reveal rooms which slid across the stage and disappeared away again, balancing domestic realism (each room immaculately decorated with period detail) with theatrical fluidity.

One of the challenges of the Second World War setting, however, was staging The Rivals’ duel. In The Rivals, Lucius O’Trigger, Bob Acres, and Jack Absolute almost end up in a duel over Lydia. In 1775 this was a believable, if rather dramatic, possibility – Sheridan himself had fought two duels in 1772. In 1940, this simply does not work, so the duels are replaced with a boxing match, which changes the stakes significantly. Such a change might have worked, though, had the production not been concurrently determined to sweep the comedy aside at points, especially at the end, to treat the war itself seriously. The issue is not with the acknowledgement of the seriousness of the war, but rather the jarring way it is handled within the context of the rest of the play, especially the slapstick ‘duel’. Following the boxing match, when reconciliation and a happy ending seem on the horizon (especially as Lucy had told Jack earlier to calm down because ‘it’s a comedy: you know you’ll get the girl’), the pilots are involved in a dogfight that ends in unexpected tragedy. This turn away from comedy seems to come out of nowhere; rather than being profound, it’s merely confusing. Without wanting to write a review of ‘how I would have done it’, I left with a strong sense that if the dogfight could have functioned as the stand-in for the duel, the pilots’ lives all endangered in a way that makes everyone see their own folly and come abruptly to their senses, it would have been possible to treat the war seriously without the jarring derailment of the conclusion in its current form.

My other slight frustration with the adaptation of The Rivals into Jack Absolute Flies Again was the loss of Beverley as a character. In The Rivals, Jack Absolute’s alter ego is a fiction – there is no Beverley other than Jack Absolute. But in Flies Again, Jack disguises himself as Dudley Scunthorpe, another character in the play, whom Lydia has taken a fancy to, despite his lack of interest in her (his heart lies with Lucy). This change means that a number of formulaic and improbable disguise tropes, avoided in Sheridan’s play, become key features of Jack Absolute Flies Again – no one who knows Jack recognises him when he’s disguised, and he’s constantly having to avoid being in the same place as the real Dudley. ‘Dudley Scunthorpe’, as the name suggests, is also an excuse for some routine northern/southern humour.

In amongst these changes, there were others that were innovative and hilarious – I particularly enjoyed Bikram Khattri (Akshay Sharan), Flies Again’s version of Lucius O’Trigger, who repeatedly attempts to pass celebrated poems he studied at Oxford off as his own, only to be called out by the characters one would expect least likely to be familiar with such works: Lucy and Bob Acres (James Corrigan). The romance between Sir Anthony Absolute and Mrs Malaprop, also not a feature of Sheridan’s play, was uproariously good, thanks in large part to the wonderful work of Peter Forbes and Caroline Quentin in the roles.

Indeed, the acting throughout was exceptional, and the cast brought such energy to the performance that they had the audience eating out of their hands. If Mrs Malaprop’s infamous malapropisms were somewhat overdone, we were willing to forgive it, because it was almost impossible not to laugh at Quentin’s delivery. For all my sense that they script could have been improved, watching Jack Absolute Flies Again (until its jarring ending) was enormous fun. To some extent, how much I enjoyed the production drives my wish for the script to be reworked – like Sheridan’s original play, I feel like there’s an absolute masterpiece lurking within it.