Once In A Lifetime @ National Theatre, London

cast list
Victoria Hamilton
Adrian Scarborough
David Suchet
Lloyd Hutchinson
Issy Van Randwyck
Caroline Sheen
Rachel Stanley
Lisa Donmall
Marcia Warren
Serena Evans
Jonathan McGuinness
Tim McMullan
Matt Zimmerman
Kate Best
William Osborne
Jack Tarlton
Nicholas Tizzard
Nick Fletcher
Michael Rouse
Paul Cawley
Sarah Annis
Akiya Henry
Paul Basleigh
Edwina Cox
Joshua Dallas
Adam Shipway
Emma Tunmore
Inika Leigh Wright
Alan Cooke
Alexis Owen Hobbs

directed by
Edward Hall

1927 was a big year in the motion picture industry. With the words, “You ain’t heard nothing yet,” Al Jolson ushered in the era of the talkie and nothing was ever the same. George S Kaufman and Moss Hart’s 1930 comedy, revived in considerable style by the National, pokes gentle fun at the movie business of the era but it lacks the venom of more recent movie-centric satires like Robert Altman’s The Player.

Once In A Lifetime is an East Coast comedy about West Coast excess. With the advent of talking pictures, it became clear that there was gold in them there Hollywood hills and there were plenty of people eager to grab a piece for themselves. So May, Jerry and George, a trio of New York Vaudeville types, hit on the bright idea of setting up an elocution school for squawking silent screen starlets and cross the country to make their fortunes.

A chance meeting with a Hollywood gossip columnist en route gets them in the door of a major studio but no sooner is this intriguing premise set up then it’s kind of forgotten about in favour of some low-level farce and some tame jabs at the plight of playwrights in the studio system. Time, it seems, has irreparably blunted what bite Once In A Lifetime may have had.

For all that, the play still has its moments as a comedy – they’re just of a rather glossy and frothy nature. Of the three it may be Jerry (Lloyd Hutchinson) and May (Victoria Hamilton) that have the business brains, but it turns out to be the endearingly dopey George who has some kind of moving picture Midas touch; every wrong turn takes him in the right direction – he films the wrong script, employs the world’s most scatty actress (a wonderfully wide-eyed Caroline Sheen), yet still manages to turn out a picture that is a commercial and critical success.

Edward Hall’s production is wonderful to look at and contains some energetic and engaging performances. David Suchet is great fun as badger-bequiffed studio mogul Herman Glogauer and Adrian Scarborough displays excellent comic timing as the dim but well-intentioned George. But the ever reliable Victoria Hamilton has little to work with as May and her character’s relationship with Jerry dwindles into nothing as the play progresses. The laughs don’t come as frequently as one would wish and the production is saddled with a rather flat second act and an is-that-it? finale. Hall has also tacked on some completely unnecessary musical interludes that serve no real purpose and only distract from the story.

Hall’s production is very much a case of style over substance – but, oh, what style! What I wouldn’t give to be let loose in that wardrobe department! Gorgeous 1920s dresses abound – feathers and flowers and sequins – every outfit delights the eye and Mark Thompson’s glittering, glamorous set does likewise. Once In A Lifetime may be a comedy de-clawed but as a bit of stylish seasonal fun it fits the bill.

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