Once in a Lifetime, NT Olivier, London

Something's a bit niffy at the Hotel Stilton
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Fingers crossed. It must be third time lucky. The West End in recent years has revived two woefully rusty comedies by Broadway's old fave, George S Kaufman. The Royal Family, his 1930s send-up of flamboyant thesps - based on the Barrymore dynasty and co-authored with Edna Ferber - proved lame, even with Judi Dench in Peter Hall's cast. Then last autumn, Solid Gold Cadillac, Kaufman's farce about corporate fat cats - jointly scripted by Howard Teichmann - appeared to have unaccountably shredded all its jokes. Staggering out of the Garrick and hurling oneself under any old passing truck might have been more rib-tickling. But give the guy another chance. He was, after all, hailed in his era as America's greatest wit, and Once in a Lifetime - co-written with the young Moss Hart - was a smash hit when it first opened in New York.

Set in 1927, this is a jovial spoof about bustling movie moguls and the hustling wannabes who flocked to Hollywood when the talkies hit the big screen. Kaufman and Hart's rags-to-riches trio - May, Jerry and their stupendously dumb sidekick, George - are a small-time vaudeville act, going nowhere. Then Jerry races back to their poky digs after seeing - and, of course, hearing - Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer. With a pioneering spirit, he and May seize their chance, jump on a train for LA with George in tow as a droll liability, and blag their way into running an elocution school in the studios of the big shot, Herman Glogauer. He is frantically trying to retrain his squawking, formerly silent starlets, then he mistakes George for a genius and makes him head of productions. This leads to a string of disasters, not least filming the wrong script and forgetting to light half of it: an escapade which, nonetheless, ends up being a preposterous box-office triumph.

The National Theatre's production is staged by Edward Hall (son of Sir Peter) with some admirable panache. Mark Thompson's scenic designs mix art-deco chic with kitsch glitter, using the Olivier's spectacular revolve which twizzles the most lavish sets up into view like a giant lipstick. The spiral staircase at the celebrity studded Hotel Stilton is dripping with gold and silver, while reception at the Glogauer Studio looks, architecturally, like a giant unraveling film reel, with undulating walls. The costumes are mostly in black and white, with splashes of colour, and they have a vaudeville-cum-cartoon quality, using big brash checks and stripes.

As the manic, power-wielding yet gullible Glogauer, David Suchet - who played this role years ago for the RSC - sports a double-breasted suit that matches his streaked hair and makes him look wider than he is tall. He has wonderful comic timing, particularly when turning on a sixpence: softly beckoning an incompetent minion to approach before sending them scuttling or, inversely, looking as if he's about to bite their head off, then enthusiastically pumping their hand. It would also be hard to improve on Adrian Scarborough's lovably jerky George who waddles around stiffly in plus-fours and thick specs, suddenly striding bombastically downstage when he realises he's running the show, only to pronounce his commands in a pusillanimous whisper.

And yet, this show never fully sparks into life. It keeps patently wishing to become a musical, with several brief ditties and some natty dancing interwoven between scenes. That remains oddly underdeveloped, though. Meanwhile, everyone is working very hard to be peppy.

Hamilton's May is fast-talking and pert and you want her to succeed, but somehow she's not quite got the American delivery or enough sardonic, sassy humour. Maybe the sheer size of this theatre dissipates the fun. Hamilton keeps, all too visibly, cheating and playing her lines out to the audience, which actually fails to make you feel genuinely involved. Issy van Randwyck does the same as the Variety journalist, Helen Hobart, straining slightly to make her flamboyant preening hilarious. Meanwhile, Hutchinson is full of energy, jiggling with excitement about The Jazz Singer, only to become somewhat bland later. He might have turned more sharply unpleasant in Hollywood, when Jerry gets obsessively pushy and forgets about his old friends. Still it's not his fault that his romance with May is such a sketchy subplot.

Singin' in the Rain, which the NT staged not so long ago, clearly borrowed a great deal from this play, but then clearly outshone it too. I did find the rave reviews of George's dire movie painfully funny - read out with disbelief by Hamilton and comparing the accidentally recorded din of George munching nuts to the ominous drumming in Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones. But overall, this feels like the theatrical equivalent of an easy viewing B-movie you might watch on TV during a wet weekend so one revival in a lifetime would probably suffice.


To 11 March, 020 7452 3000