First Night: Once in a Lifetime, Olivier, National Theatre, London

Snap and spirit can't hide so much laboured humour
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The Independent Culture

In the David and Goliath relationship between the theatre and Hollywood, dramatists in the stone-slinging little-guy role have usually had their aim improved and their appalled fascination with the target intensified by first-hand experience of working in both camps. One thinks, say, of David Mamet in Speed-the-Plow or Ron Hutchinson in Moonlight and Magnolias. The weird thing about Once in a Lifetime - the 1930 Kaufman and Hart play that is the granddaddy of this sub-genre - is that neither author had set foot in Tinseltown before it was completed.

It says a lot about the mad unreality of the place that purely from hearsay and a diligent study of Variety, the playwriting duo - in their first collaboration - could concoct a piece that set the pattern for much subsequent satire about Hollywood. The archetypal figures and stock situations of later lampoons are lavishly present in this story of three down-on-their-luck vaudevillians who try to make a fortune from the industry's shift into the sound era by pretending to be elocution experts. There's Glogauer (David Suchet), the megalomaniac philistine producer, who pines for the silent days because "even if you turned out a good picture, you made money". There's Vail, the imported New York playwright driven to distraction and a sanatorium by the Kafkaesque studio bureaucracy and the "underwork". There is Helen Hobart, the gossip columnist, vividly portrayed here by Issy Van Randwyck as woman whom power has turned more loftily regal than royalty. And so on, and on.

But as Edward Hall's effortfully upbeat Olivier production indicates, there's also a sizeable snag. The very works for which Once in a Lifetime furnished the blueprint have left it looking creaky and superseded. When you've listened to the hilariously spiteful screeching of Lina Lamont in Singin' in the Rain, you aren't going to die laughing at the caterwauling cuties and their "abdominal breathing" lessons in this play. One of my teenage daughters was taken by her a school to a preview and ominously reported that "it's the kind of show that you feel really guilty for not enjoying". I now know exactly what she means.

No one could accuse the production of failing to pull its finger out. Mark Thompson has jazzed it up with opulent, witty designs, such as the Deco-ish reception room at the Glogauer studio with its narcissistic motif of curling celluloid strips along the stairs and desk. There are ingratiating song-and-dance interludes with the music of Al Jolson, the man who warned the world that "You ain't heard nothin' yet". All the performances have energy and some have the right rhythmic snap and spirit. Sounding rather like a straight version of Liberace, Adrian Scarborough is endearingly dense as the owlish dimwit who blunders his way to the big time by being so stupid that he's mistaken for an ahead- of-his-time genius by Hollywood and the trend-conscious press. In the wise-cracking, heartsore Eve Arden-style role of May, Victoria Hamilton looks as though she'd be happier if the part had a third dimension.

But only a more genuinely charming atmosphere than the production is currently generating could disguise the laboured obviousness of much of the humour. At the end, I felt as exhausted by the struggle to have a good time as the game cast must be by the strain of trying to provide one.

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