The era of silent cinema will seem to many as remote as the last days of the Roman Empire. It is difficult, therefore, to imagine the revolution the “talkies” would have sparked in the Hollywood of 1927. Unfortunately, Once in a Lifetime, despite some great comic performances, doesn’t do much to enlighten us and the audience is left with something diverting and amusing, but ultimately a little vacuous.
The show, written by Moss Hart and George Kaufman and adapted by Christopher Hart, begins with the release of the first “talking picture”, Warner Brothers’ The Jazz Singer. This catches the attention of May (Claudie Blakely), George (John Marquez) and Jerry (Kevin Bishop), a vaudeville trio on their last legs. Realising that Hollywood will need voice coaches to train the hitherto mute movie starts, they hightail it across the country in the hope of cashing in on the new cinematic order.
The action rattles through a straightforward plot which brings some moments of hilarity and the odd insight into the historical moment, but overall it feels inconsequential. The comedy is only surface deep: it gives the audience some witty one liners and over the top characters, but doesn’t stretch much farther than that. This has the effect of making the whole endeavour feel like a period piece, or a relic from some past age that doesn’t have much to offer the modern viewer.
There are, however, the odd flashes of inspiration which save the production from monotony. The revolving staging is well conceived as it gives the effect of constant, frenzied movement, much like the urgency of the characters. Similarly, there are some excellent moments of hyperreality – a consignment of 2,000 planes suddenly arriving on the premises, or the image of an elocution lesson with a sea of ticking metronomes – which contribute to the mood of excess.
The ensemble work well as a cohesive whole, with the stand out performances mostly coming from the supporting cast rather than the principles. Amanda Lawrence as the twittering secretary Miss Leighton and Lucy Cohu as the insufferable film critic Helen Hobart get the most laughs. The three main protagonists are well considered and do tap into the comic potential of their characters, but their slick banter often comes across as rushed and garbled and makes their portrayals feel shallower. Harry Enfield, the show’s big name, as the movie studio boss brings a certain gravitas to the role, but ultimately doesn’t stand out among the rest.
All in all, Once in a Lifetime is a diverting evening of entertainment with some excellent comic moments, but suffers from a lack of depth beneath its comic surface.
Once in a Lifetime is playing at the Young Vic until January 14 2017.
Photo: Tristram Kenton