Review: Richard Bean and Oliver Chris’s new comedy, Jack Absolute Flies Again, lands in the Olivier Theatre at the National Theatre

Jack Absolute Flies Again, is a delight. Jokes come slick and fast, careening from witty wordplay to shameless crudeness. But overall, it is a bumpy flight, injecting darker and more tragic elements that feel at odds with the rest of the production.

Its roots lie in a classic late 18th-century comedy of manners, The Rivals, by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, updated to an RAF base during World War Two. The rural Sussex setting, where new military buildings stand alongside a requisitioned stately home and garden, has been beautifully created by set and costume designer Mark Thompson.

Mark Thompson’s set design for Jack Absolute Flies Again. Photo: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg

Much of Sheridan’s intricate romantic plot remains, as well as some of the characters, including the legendary Mrs Malaprop with her constant confusing of words – brilliantly played by Caroline Quentin with such skill that surprisingly it never becomes tedious. Natalie Simpson is also excellent as the posh Lydia Languish who, in this version, has become an Air Transport Auxiliary pilot. She has rejected an expected match with the aristocratic Jack Absolute to find love outside of her class, setting out to seduce Yorkshire mechanic Dudley Scunthorpe (Kelvin Fletcher). But Jack, a dashing RAF pilot played with great charm and energy by Laurie Davidson, is in love with Lydia – as are most of his squadron.

Natalie Simpson and Laurie Davidson in Jack Absolute Flies Again. Photo: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg

Mischievous housemaid Lucy stirs things up further by misdirecting letters in a joyfully knowing performance by Kerry Howard. Added to the mix is Jack Absolute’s father, Sir Anthony, a reactionary snob whose daft pomposity is hilariously realised by Peter Forbes.

Bean and Chris have added more modern themes around race and sex in an effective way, exploding any comparisons with more traditional wartime comedies such as Dad’s Army. One of the highlights is the romance between pilot Roy Faulkland – a superb comic performance by Jordan Metcalfe with touches of Frasier’s Niles Crane – and his fiancée, Julia Melville (Helena Wilson), as they both learn about sex and relationships. The cast also reflects the internationalism of British forces during the war, with Akshay Sharan as Sikh Bikram “Tony” Khattri and James Corrigan as Bob “Wingnut” Acres – a loveably dim Australian grappling with the bewilderingly odd aspects of English culture.

James Corrigan, Jordan Metcalfe, Laurie Davidson and Akshay Sharan in Jack Absolute Flies Again. Photo: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg

Directed by Emily Burns, Jack Absolute Flies Again does soar at times, although never to the heights of Richard Bean’s predecessor in the Olivier Theatre, One Man Two Guv’nors. It sets out to be more than just a broad comedy, aiming to celebrate the sacrifices of service personnel, but ends up with an uneven tone that undermines the whole.

Running at the National Theatre to 3 September 2022.

Kerry Howard and Kelvin Fletcher in Jack Absolute Flies Again. Photo: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg