In the David and Goliath relationship between the theatre and Hollywood, dramatists in the little guy role have usually had their aim improved by 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 yet set foot in Tinseltown.
It says a lot about the mad unreality of the place that, purely from hearsay and a diligent study of Variety, the playwriting duo 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 by pretending to be elocution experts. There's Glogauer (David Suchet), the megalomaniac philistine producer. There's Vail, the New York playwright driven to distraction and a sanatorium by the Kafkaesque studio bureaucracy. There's Helen Hobart, the gossip columnist, vividly portrayed here by Issy Van Randwyck as a woman whom power has turned loftily regal.
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 superannuated. 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.
No one could accuse the production of failing to pull its finger out. Mark Thompson has jazzed it up with opulent, droll designs. There's grainy film footage and ingratiating song-and-dance interludes featuring 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 rhythmic snap and spirit.
But in the wise-cracking Eve Arden-style role of May, Victoria Hamilton looks as if she's be a lot happier if the role had a third dimension, and only a more genuinely charming period atmosphere could hope to distract from the laboured obviousness and lack of edge in much of the humour.
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