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Review: Once in a Lifetime at the Young Vic

The golden age of Hollywood is brought to life charmingly in this old-fashioned comedy.

This Broadway antique, by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, was first produced in 1930. Telling the story of a trio of washed-up Vaudeville performers who decide to try their luck in Hollywood, it is a parody of (and tribute to) Tinseltown around the time that the “talking picture” was born. It also serves as a tongue-in-cheek celebration of the American Dream, its protagonists an unlikely bunch of loveable con-artists who end up hitting the big time through a series of chance encounters and lucky strikes.

On learning of a potential market for elocution teachers – given the sudden need for screen actors to speak – May, Jerry and George head west with the idea of setting up their very own school and capitalising on the latest gap in Hollywood’s market. Despite a total lack of knowledge on the subject, a fortuitous meeting with Mr. Glogauer of Glogauer Pictures sees them setting up shop in one of the most prestigious studios around, and the rest of the action largely follows them as they chase their tails from one tricky situation to the next.

Claudie Blakley’s May is delightfully dry, shooting off acerbic one-liners with panache to cover up her lack of confidence as she attempts to steer an unfamiliar ship through choppy waters, in constant peril of being labelled a fraud. John Marquez is good too, portraying the hapless George as a Woody Allen-type straight man hovering somewhere on the autistic spectrum. Excellent physical comedy comes from Amanda Lawrence as Miss Leighton, a dotty receptionist who spends most of the time struggling to juggle her various jobs. Harry Enfield pitches Glogauer with his usual light comic touch: the studio owner wanders from scene to scene as if he barely has a clue what he himself is up to, let alone anyone else.

Although Richard Jones has assembled a strong cast who do a good job of populating Hyemi Shin’s beautiful revolving set, this is a play that relies heavily on physical gags and sharp comic delivery. Here it is a little hit-and-miss. The Vaudevillian nature of the piece requires a style of performance that revels in big delivery and absolutely brims with American chutzpah, and although there are great moments when the cast hit this level, at times they don’t quite manage the size of performance required.

That said, this is a big-hearted and charming story with plenty of laughs. It may lack a bit of oomph, but it remains a funny and entertaining evening of theatre.

GT gives Once in a Lifetime at the Young Vic — 3/5


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