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Once in a Lifetime review at the Young Vic Theatre, London – ‘slick but slight’

Harry Enfield and Lucy Cohu in Once in a Lifetime at the Young Vic in 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

George S Kaufman and Moss Hart’s 1930 comedy is set in a time of great change in the entertainment industry. It takes place during the advent of the talkies, when the denizens of the ‘legitimate stage’ find they have a chance to break Hollywood. A trio of opportunist ex-vaudevillians decide to head west and launch an elocution school for the silent film stars who have never had to speak on camera before.

Once in a Lifetime is a slick but slight piece of writing that depends a lot on the precision of its pacing and the charisma of its cast. Richard Jones’ production treads heavy to begin with and takes a while to gather steam, though it’s tighter than the last major revival, Edward Hall’s rather bloated National Theatre production in 2005. Jones’ more spry production has more in keeping with the Coen Brothers’ output, albeit rather diluted, from the affectionate homage of Hail Caesar, to the more biting Barton Fink.

The production benefits from some entertaining cameos: Harry Enfield is surprisingly low-key as studio mogul Glogauer. He looks a bit like Peter Falk’s Columbo’s better-dressed brother and walks with the gait of a melancholy penguin. The angular Amanda Lawrence, as a high-strung studio secretary, meanwhile, provides us with a reminder of her knack for physical comedy.

Despite the hard work of Claudie Blakley, Kevin Bishop and John Marquez, the production can’t quite compensate for the fact that the central trio aren’t all that appealing or well-defined, with Bishop in particular suffering in this regard.

It’s intensely pretty to look at though, particularly the costumes. Nicky Gillibrand’s sparkling 1920s gowns pop against the backdrop of Hyemi Shin’s monochrome revolving set and the production may well be the cause of a sequin shortage in south London.

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Verdict
Beautifully costumed but patchily paced revival of the 1930s Hollywood comedy
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