Review of Once in a Lifetime at the Young Vic Theatre
In an unusual break for the Young Vic, London's 'hippest' venue and creator of high octane classic rediscoveries, this gentle revival of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman 1930 hit comedy Once in a Lifetime seems something of an oddity. A satire on the film industry and the Hollywood studio machine it's a piece that is certainly showing its age and Richard Jones' production which boasts an adaptation of Christopher Hart does little to either make it relevant or draw out the wit out of the dialogue.
Moss Hart's incredible autobiography 'Act One', spectacularly dramatised by James Lapine at the Lincoln Center two seasons back, outlined the unlikely coming together of the duo and their struggles writing the play which was the first of eight successful comedies they created throughout the decade. Unrivalled by heir contemporaries their string of hits went on to include the Pulitzer Prize-winning You Can't Take it With You, and whilst there's much to admire in their first collaboration it can't help but feel uneven and slightly underdeveloped.
Set in 1930s Hollywood at the advent of talking pictures, three ambitious New Yorkers hatch a plan to head west and open an elocution school to rake in the industry talent now in need of vocal instruction. Their misadventures see them get mixed up within the studio politics, resulting in the hapless and dimwitted George becoming head of the cooperation, shooting the wrong script and filming without the lights on.
As his incompetence is commended much of the humour rests in the mix of physical comedy and situation based malapropisms and mistakes. Sadly these rarely land, and for a comedy from two of America's most celebrated stage writers I spent two hours barely cracking a smile. The problem is, it's hard to identify exactly why. The pace lags and the play doesn't get off to the greatest of starts with the three protagonists boxed up in a clinical and claustrophobic box of a set that eventually opens out to display an efficient revolve, but it all seems too spartan and austere to really let us indulge in the Tinseltown glamour. Presented in a bare monochrome I found Hyemi Shin's design ill-matching with the tone of both play and production, and for all its revolving and careful slotting together it doesn't quite pop as well it might.
There's a overall lack of fun in the production that hints at period music and a jazzy boxstep but never fully evolves into the 'Singin' in the Rain' era it attempts to satirise. There's something too overly intellectual about its delivery – the satire is almost spelled out to us ad nauseam and the frantic and spirited pace never gets chance to take off. Claudie Blakley is dry as a Martini as May Daniels but each of her lines lands downwards, meaning the energy continually falls off the face of a cliff as her cynicism reduces our enjoyment of both situation and aesthetic. Lizzy Connolly delights in the dippy ingénue stock character and Harry Enfield shuffles along competently as studio boss Herman Glogauer, but sadly it's not enough to ramp the production up into full throttle.
This is a play that should fizz with the excitement and energy of a freshly opened Prosecco but instead bubbles softly like day-old buck's fizz. As much as I delight in seeing a Kaufman and Hart comedy in London, this is a disappointing misfire and an imperfect match between play and venue.
What the Press Said...
"Enfield makes an assured theatre debut but this production puts visual bravura before verbal precision."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"The evident problem with the play overall (not that this bothered audiences of the day) is that it takes a while to get going and is almost over once it has hit its stride."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"I may not be a massive fan of the piece, but I applaud this production as the best and least overblown account of it that I have seen."
Paul Taylor for The Independent