Photo: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

We had high hopes for Jack Absolute Flies Again, the big new comedy that’s opened at the National Theatre this summer. Written by Richard Bean (One Man, Two Guvnors) and Oliver Chris (Twelfth Night), it’s a modern take on Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 18th-century farce The Rivals. The play stars the brilliant Caroline Quentin in the iconic role of Mrs Malaprop, alongside Laurie Davidson, Natalie Simpson and Kelvin Fletcher in the roles of Jack Absolute, Lydia Languish and Dudley Scunthorpe, respectively.

The original story has been updated and now unfolds during World War II. Everything takes place in and around Mrs Malaprop’s countryside pile – or piles, as she accidentally refers to it – and true to the original, we see various stories of love and mistaken identity unfold. Cast members regularly break the fourth wall, speaking directly to the audience and highlighting moments in the script that were in the original plot and new segments which have been written in.

What we were expecting was a rollicking comedy which would fire on all cylinders, but unfortunately it never quite gets there. That’s not to say it isn’t funny – it’s constantly mildly amusing – but it’s light on big laughs, and there’s little else going on here to recommend. Only one moment caught us genuinely off-guard, and we weren’t emotionally invested enough in the characters involved to really care about this unexpected change in direction. For the remaining two-and-a-half hours of the show, it’s entirely predictable and really quite pedestrian.

We left the theatre feeling underwhelmed – not because Jack Absolute Flies Again is particularly bad (it’s not) – it’s just rarely all that brilliant, either. Given the talented cast and creative involved in making this play, it’s disappointing that the show isn’t smarter or funnier. It isn’t without redeeming features – there are a couple of laugh-out-loud moments, the staging all looks very nice, there’s an entertaining set-piece involving a ukulele – but it’s just not as good as it could or should have been.

GAY TIMES gives Jack Absolute Flies Again – 3/5

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