Cynics might say that it’s the incompetents who are frequently promoted, often beyond their talents and abilities. And this is one of the themes of ‘Once In A Lifetime’, the satire of the Hollywood film industry of the late 1920s, written by Moss Hart and George Kaufman and first performed in 1930.
The trouble with this comedy is that it’s long past its ‘sell-by’ date, managing at best only to prise a half-hearted smile from the audience, rather than raise even a hint of real laughter. True, there are occasional gags that have some wit, for example when movie mogul Herman Glogauer explains the way they do things in Hollywood - “No time wasted on thinking”. Unfortunately, the same could easily apply to the National Theatre’s management in choosing to revive this stale piece in the first place, which, glitzy though the production is (thanks to Mark Thompson’s excellent art-deco inspired design), it just hasn’t got the kind of bite either to captivate or involve a modern audience.
Set in 1927, the story focuses on an unlikely trio of fifth-rate entertainers – May, Jerry and the dim-witted George, who irritatingly eats ‘Indian’ nuts, cracking them with his teeth. With dwindling cash reserves and a career going nowhere, the trio decide to move to Hollywood and open a school to train stars of the ‘silent’ movies to speak properly in order to work in the ‘talkies’. En route to the West coast from New York, they bump into a renowned film critic who introduces them to Herman Glogauer (played by David Suchet), head of the movie studio that turned down the Vitophone film sound recording process, and now desperate to compete with a rival studio owned by the 12 Schlepkin brothers – who all bizarrely turn out to look like Groucho Marx.
In true Hollywood ‘hire ‘em and fire ‘em’ tradition, it’s not long before the ‘vocal coaches’ are (inexplicably) sacked. But when George surprisingly stands-up to Glogauer, he’s promptly re-instated and promoted to production supervisor. Subsequently, his incompetence in both film-making and administration perversely earn him ever more glory and esteem.
Suchet provides a suitably formidable and domineering Glogauer, even though his badger-like hair style is somewhat distracting, if not downright odd. But it’s a roundly stereotypical interpretation that might send more than a shiver of disquiet down the spines of more sensitive patrons. But at least Suchet’s portrayal injected some spirited conviction into the production, which is more than can be said for the other leading roles that I found largely bland or, as in the case of Adrian Scarborough’s George, unconvincingly over-drawn in comparison.
The show-stealer in ‘Once In A Lifetime’ has to be Mark Thompson’s design. Both the costumes and the sets are deliciously glamorous, if not sumptuous. In particular, the spiral staircase in the Stilton Hotel which we see in Act 3 is simply stunning, and deservedly won a round of applause from the otherwise subdued and largely unresponsive audience. But no amount of glitz or glamour can make up for what is essentially an out-dated concept, and a naïve style of comedy that we’ve long-since out-grown.
What the popular press had to say.....
NICK CURTIS for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Once in a Lifetime is not very funny or very sharp, and director Edward Hall tries to paper over its deficiencies by throwing expensive sets..." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "At the end, I felt as exhausted by the struggle to have a good time as the game cast must be by the strain of trying to provide one." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Dizzily enjoyable revival." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Has a certain period charm." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "There’s no faulting the energy of Hall’s cast or the exotic excellence of Mark Thompson’s designs... I just wasn’t convinced that Once in a Lifetime was worth the effort." ALISTAIR SMITH for THE STAGE says, "It falls down due to a lack of substance and fails to create anything truly memorable. Like its source material it is just a bit too frothy."