Laurie Davidson and Natalie Simpson on bringing 'Jack Absolute Flies Again' to life

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

The National Theatre’s Olivier space is currently filled with those magnificent men (and women) in their flying machines, thanks to Richard Bean and Oliver Chris’s rip-roaring comedy Jack Absolute Flies Again. The play transports Richard Sheridan’s The Rivals to an English stately home in 1940, which has become the base for Allied pilots during the Battle of Britain.

Chris starred alongside James Corden in Bean’s smash-hit show One Man, Two Guvnors, which also began at the National before playing in the West End and on Broadway. Now Chris and Bean have teamed up for this latest effort – which also puts a new twist on a classic piece of theatre, and yields hysterical results.

Jack Absolute features Caroline Quentin as the language-mangling Mrs Malaprop, who takes a shine to Peter Forbes’s blustering Sir Anthony Absolute. Meanwhile, his son Jack Absolute, a dashing pilot, is reunited with Mrs Malaprop’s niece, Air Transport Auxiliary officer Lydia Languish; the pair once bonded during a jitterbug contest, but are currently on the outs.

Lydia, who has recently discovered socialism, has her eye on working-class mechanic Dudley, who in turn is wooing the maid Lucy. And pilot Roy, Jack’s best pal, is engaged to Lydia’s friend Julia – who also happens to be Roy’s cousin. Can love conquer all, even war?

“These pilots could die tomorrow, so the stakes are so much higher,” said Laurie Davidson, who plays Jack. “They have to find love today.” Natalie Simpson, who plays Lydia, noted: “The characters are so young, and they’re a mess around the opposite sex. They have to switch into adult mode to become fighter pilots – to become men – but you’re reminded that they’re children still.”

Emily Burns’s production balances that poignancy with gloriously silly farce, as various lovers get the wrong end of the stick, or disguise themselves as other people. Laurie and Natalie spoke to us about trying to keep a straight face during the funniest parts, the responsibility of playing these war heroes, and why they’re both excited – and a bit nervous – about the play being broadcast to millions as part of NT Live on October.

Jack Absolute Flies Again is at the National Theatre to 3 September.

For anyone who hasn’t seen it, tell us what the show is about and who you play.

Natalie Simpson: It’s a new comedy version of The Rivals – a similar plot, but with a 1940s feel. I play Lydia: she’s a pilot for the Air Transport Auxiliary [ATA], so basically she’s in charge of transporting goods, like food and drink, and also delivering planes when they need new ones. She knows Jack from before: they met at a party and had a little romantic liaison, and this is the first time she’s seen him since their bust-up.

Laurie Davidson: I play Jack, son of Sir Anthony, who’s a big deal in the army. Jack has joined the air force instead, much to the dismay of his father. The air force is more relaxed in their rules and regulations. Jack has fallen in love with Lydia but hasn’t seen her in years, since his attempt to woo her at a jitterbug contest.

At the beginning of the play, we find him right after a dog fight, adrenalised. Someone has just saved him from certain death – he thinks it was one of his chums, but actually it’s –

Natalie: Lydia! I love that she saves him, without any weapons, just doing these amazing moves in the air [in her plane]. She gets to be the knight in shining armour.

And this is a comedy with a serious edge too, right?

Natalie: Yes, it’s written by Richard Bean and Oliver Chris, who came back together after One Man, Two Guvnors. It’s a very funny play with a lot of wordplay and dressing up as someone else, so it’s very light, very fun, but it also has real heart to it. Without giving away any spoilers, it’s set in wartime so there’s a lot of references to that as well. It’s a really well-rounded, beautiful play that people can enjoy – and we all need a laugh right now.

Laurie: The innate problem with The Rivals is that it’s all about money and inheritance and land-grabbing and marrying for wealth. What’s great about this version is it feels much more that everything is for love – and it’s got the added danger that these pilots could die tomorrow, so the stakes are so much higher. They have to find love today. The life expectancy for a pilot during the Battle of Britain was just two weeks. Jack and his friend Roy, they don’t want to die virgins.

Natalie: What’s really lovely is seeing that the characters are so young, and they’re a mess around the opposite sex. They have to switch into adult mode to become fighter pilots – to become men – but you’re reminded that they’re children still.

Laurie: Jack in particular is very adept at flying a complicated aircraft, trying to win the war and kill other human beings – which is huge for a 20-year-old to have on their shoulders. But he’s totally inept in the battle of love.

Natalie, I’m ashamed to say I didn’t know much about the ATA. Did you research that?

Natalie: Yes, I had absolutely no idea about it. I was completely blown away by the roles that women had. They flew these transport planes, and the guns were taken off them – at first I thought it was that they didn’t trust girls with ammunition, but it was actually all of them. It’s amazing how much responsibility they had and the risks they took. Similarly to the guys, maybe: they were so young and naïve, there was excitement without quite understanding what it really meant.

Was it difficult learning all the slang as well?

Natalie: When I was first doing it, I was pronouncing everything wrong! Ollie would come up to me eventually and be like “Actually this is how you say it.” I had no understanding of that world. Though funnily enough my dad’s father was in the RAF – he was a Dudley, an engineer. So when my dad came to see the show it was this blast from the past. He opened up a bit more about all that afterwards. It was really special.

Jack Absolute Flies Again - 750 - LT

Laurie, how important was it to establish the camaraderie among the pilots?

Laurie: That was really great – especially my relationship with Roy, played by the incredible Jordan Metcalfe, who’s such a lovely foil for Jack. It’s beautifully paced: throughout the play, Jack is the more experienced in the world of love, then it flips and Roy becomes a changed man, giving Jack advice.

We all really bonded recording the audio for the dogfights – that was a brilliant experience. You got the energy of it and imagined being up there. The cockpits were quite open, and if you’re flying at the same height in formation, while on the comms, you’re literally looking at the person just to your left. We went up to the roof of the theatre when they did the Jubilee flyby, and you could see their wings are barely a metre from touching.

You’re constantly looking after each other, so it was such a big blow to lose a friend and a fellow pilot. But then they had to move on and get back to it – there was a constant influx of new pilots. That stiff upper lip attitude.

Also, we think of the RAF as British, but the Commonwealth Nations played such a huge part. We have a Sikh pilot from India, and an Australian pilot. There was a line originally in the play about Polish pilots and their contribution – “more kills per man than any of us Britishers”.

Then the show goes into such incredible comedy. Natalie, I don’t know how you keep a straight face during Caroline’s malapropisms…

Natalie: I don’t! I had a friend in and they said “Oh, we saw Lydia laughing” and I was like “Yeah, that was just me”. But it works because we’re great friends offstage, and then in the play she’s my auntie, we’ve known each other our whole lives, there’s a lot of love and trust, and I think Lydia does find her really entertaining and funny. She loves it.

Laurie, likewise you have Peter Forbes shouting at you!

Laurie: Yes, I have to sit there cowering while he sprays me with his plosives. I just use it. Jack would have grown up knowing his dad is impossible to reason with. Peter gives me so much to react to – he’s so unreasonable, so unbending. It’s just perfect. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

And then doing those super-quick farce sequences must take a lot of preparation?

Laurie: Yes, a LOT of speed runs.

Natalie: The big one [towards the end of the first act], we’d do it every day before lunch, just keep running through it. Up until previews we still didn’t have the pace on it that we wanted. But sometimes the scenes that are the most difficult to rehearse are the most fun to perform.

There’s another scene, with me, Lucy and Julia, which was tough because so many people are coming in and out, but now it’s my favourite – I think because there aren’t many women in the show, and that’s our time together. Caroline comes in too and I have a lot of feed lines for her, so it was about finding the right timing.

Laurie: In really brilliant plays like this, the writing tells you how to do it. I have a line “This is absolutely exhausting”, and from that you know that from start to finish Jack can’t have time to breathe – he’s constantly under pressure.

The play also acknowledges that the characters in the central love story come from a place of complete privilege. It’s very aware of itself, in a good way.

Natalie: It’s so easy to fall in love with these characters because they all have good intentions towards each other. Even if they’re a bit selfish and entitled, or not able to see what other people need, they’re not Machiavellian or cruel. It’s just pure young love and confusion. Jack and Lydia might seem quite annoying to be around, but there’s something so endearing about them too. And no one escapes having the piss taken out of them – it’s equal opportunities humour.

Do you have a favourite line or joke?

Natalie: It cracks me up every time when Caroline says “Seize the carpet!” – it’s just so stupid. Also when she says “centrifuge” instead of “subterfuge”.

Laurie: Mine is when Lydia’s talking about her aspirations in her socialist journey and Sir Anthony is so perplexed by what she’s saying he explodes with “What the f--k is she talking about?”. It’s so delicious – it gets me every time.

And there’s some fourth-wall breaking too…

Natalie: Caroline and Kerry [Howard, who plays Lucy] have the most. I speak to the audience maybe twice, which I find very, very scary! But they have a lot of fun. They’re both so good at riffing and working with what they have. I never know what’s going to happen – it really does change every night, so I have to be on my toes.

Jack Absolute Flies Again - 750 - LT

We must also talk jitterbug! There’s a spectacular dance moment – did you have any background in dance?

Natalie: I did a bit of flamenco at drama school. I can move. But I hadn’t done any formal training. Luckily Lizzi Gee, our choreographer, was so incredible – she made it seem so easy. There’s one lift we were terrified of, she kept saying “You’ve done much more difficult things!”.

Laurie: I just love dancing. It starts out as this dance-y dialogue [between Jack and Lydia] and opens out into a beautiful routine. It’s a real treat. The whole stage is filled and everyone has little moments – like a nod to Kelvin [Fletcher] and Caroline’s dancing past [on the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing].

Natalie: The music was actually composed around us as we were learning the dance, based on what we could do, which was a real privilege.

Laurie: But then that initial dance in the bedroom, I’ve never played a scene where it has to be on metronomic counts because of the music and the dancing. Touch wood, we’ve always managed it.

Natalie: Because we’re on that schedule, there’s no place to mess up. It almost becomes muscle memory.

Is the Olivier an intimidating space to play?

Laurie: Oddly, as soon as we got on the stage and started doing it I felt way more at home. This play is so reliant on an audience – you can’t imagine it until you’re in there. It’s that final piece of the puzzle.

Doing a farce in that semi-round staging isn’t easy though. It was a real sticking point in rehearsals: how do we make this work so the surprises are really delicious for the audience? Entrances in farce are like punctuation; there’s a rhythm in the scene. You can’t see the actor coming 10 seconds beforehand. But [director] Emily [Burns] was so brilliant with the blocking of it all.

Natalie: When we arrived in the theatre, the world of the play was already created so beautifully with Mark Thompson’s set and costumes. Walking into Lydia’s bedroom, I can’t tell you how detailed it all is; I really found the character there. She has a lacrosse stick and these horse riding trophies, but she’s put the first place ones on a shelf and the fourth place ones are hidden away in the cupboard…

Are you excited to reach more audiences with the NT Live broadcast in October?

Natalie: I’m nervous! I know we do it live every night, but there’s something about it being live around the world – it’s going to be in Sydney, Tokyo, everywhere. It’s scary. It’s a much bigger stage; you can’t really wrap your head around it. I did one for the RSC and my friends in New York sent me a picture of their tickets. It was mad!

Laurie: Caroline has taught me this: there are no mistakes. If something goes wrong, or goes differently, you acknowledge it and run with it. If something goes off-piste with this show it’s almost a gift – it spurs you into a new fun space. We have a relationship with the audience already, breaking the fourth wall, so those moments are a blessing.

That takes the pressure off trying to do it right. Although for the live one, of course we want it the best it’s ever been. But whenever something has gone wrong, like when the truck hasn’t worked or a door hasn’t opened, the audience have gone wild!

Natalie: I saw One Man, Two Guvnors through NT Live and it was just as exciting. You get all those incredible close-ups – in some ways, it’s an even better experience. If you’ve seen Jack Absolute on stage, you might want to go again to the broadcast to catch some of the things you’ve missed. I think it’s going to be really joyful.

Photo credit: Jack Absolute Flies Again (Photos by Brinkhoff/Mogenburg)

Originally published on

Subscribe to our newsletter to unlock exclusive London theatre updates!

Special offers, reviews and release dates for the best shows in town.

You can unsubscribe at any time. Privacy Policy