Blue/Orange. Cuttin’ It. Yerma. The Mountaintop. It’s been a fairly stonking year for the Young Vic, so why they have to cap it off with a production as utterly unlovable as Hart and Kaufman’s Once In A Lifetime is beyond me. It’s a comedy, apparently, a satire on the hectic, bluster-filled days of early Hollywood. Perhaps when it originally premiered in New York in 1930, it got a few laughs, but it didn’t impress anyone when the National revived it in 2005, and it doesn’t impress anyone here. If you’re after a big, fun festive show, then don’t bother with it. Go see the Hackney panto instead.
Jerry (Kevin Bishop), May (Claudie Blakley) and George (John Marquez) are three chancers who ditch their tawdry, touring New York vaudeville act and catch a cross-country train to California, in the hope of making it big in Hollywood. The days of the silent movie are done, talkies are taking over, and soon every producer in town is desperate for actors who sound as good as they look. So Jerry, May and George – with help from eminent, infuriatingly arrogant film critic Helen Hobart (Lucy Cohu) – pitch up at the studios of Mr Glogauer (Harry Enfield, making his stage debut) and persuade him to employ them as voice coaches.
After a promising start, everything goes to shit (in the story that is, not the play, which doesn’t have the promising start). Then it’s all good again, with events conspiring to turn George – the earnest, nut-crunching dummkopf of the trio – into the most powerful man in the movie biz. Then he screws up, and it’s shit again. Such are the rapidly fluctuating fortunes of Hollywood. Ain’t it just crazy?
The diffuse, episodic, uninteresting plot could be forgiven, if the satire had any teeth and the jokes were occasionally humorous. But they’re not. Hart and Kauffman’s Hollywood is a world of supremely detestable social butterflies, swaggering, cigar-chewing big-shot producers and unsophisticated schmucks desperate to make something of their non-existent talent. It’s a world of limitless money and limited intelligence, in which no-one’s really got a clue. And that’s the joke. That’s the only joke. And it’s not funny.
Director Richard Jones has taken the stunningly misguided decision to turn it into a screwball comedy, reminiscent of the Coen brothers’ films Hail, Caesar! and The Hudsucker Proxy. Each to their own, of course, and I’m sure some will relish this spectacularly silly world of caricature and kitsch, but there’s a reason they don’t make ‘em like this anymore, particularly in Britain, and it’s because no-one like them. Tastes have changed. We like our comedies sharp, cerebral and dry, or farcical with a hint of sadness. There’s something far too, well, something far too bloody American about Once In A Lifetime.
Which is not to criticise Jones’ cast, who all ham it up for all they’re worth. Marquez is endearingly child-like as the simple, sweet-natured George. Bishop is appropriately wily, and Blakley’s delivery has an ice-cold shine to it that would earn laughs, were it applied to better jokes. Enfield – the big draw here, face splashed all over the posters – provides an entirely passable Glogauer, waddling and wallowing his way around the stage, thick glasses skewed across his face. Lizzy Connolly, Amanda Lawrence, Otto Farrant and Daniel Abelson all impress in the supporting cast, those last two providing specks of comfort with a prissy German director and a frustrated East Coast playwright respectively. And Hyemi Shin’s design, a magic box of rotating studios and garish décor, is superb.
It’s such a shame, after the year the Young Vic has had, and with the plethora of talent it has to hand here, that it should see out 2016 with such a big, dull dud. But it has. Let’s move on quick. Bring on the New Year, when it can get back to doing what it’s best at: challenging, uber-high-quality drama. Leave tat like this in the history books where it belongs.
Once In A Lifetime is on at the Young Vic until 14th January 2017. Click here for more details.