Absolutely Fabulous

There is nothing like an unanticipated dance scene on stage or screen: the twist contest in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (an homage to, among other cinematic choregraphies, Godard’s Bande à part); in spite its cheezy intercutting, Al Pacino’s “tango” (not a tango at all, an Argentinian once contemptuously informed me, dismissing the number as a mere “tea dance”) in Scent of a Woman, an entertainment that has surely been cancelled by now; the cool retro groove of the three retired and freshly doomed nuclear plant workers in Lucy Kirkwood’s 2017 atom-apoclypse play, The Children, which premiered in London in 2016 before coming to New York in 2018.

That purveyor of excess, Baz Luhrmann strung an unforgettable series of tableaux dansants together in Strictly Ballroom, then showed how unwatchtably precious he could be when he turned from the send-up to the serious in his Romeo and Juliet. There’s no shortage of dancing in Shakespeare, but directors undertake to stage it at their own peril: the theatrical possibilities are limitless, but proportional to the risk of failure. That is probably a fair description of dancing itself: the threat of falling flat on your face is both figurative and literal.

Among the best of all dance scenes is in Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman of 1925. The impecunious college boy’s tuxedo is not yet ready when the big ball begins so he has to drag his aged tailor along to the party in order to finish the outfit as surreptitiously as possible during the dancing itself, the spectacle ending in the pantless public humiliation of our hapless hero.

The best thing about the rollicking comedy of class and sex, Jack Absolute Flies Again, which opened in early July and runs till the beginning of September at the National Theatre on London’s Southbank, is the outbreak of a jitterbug contest.

The play is set at an airfield in Sussex during the Battle of Britain. The title character (played by Laurie Davidson) is a swashbuckling aristocrat answering the call of duty as a fearless fighter pilot. When his boots are on the ground the terra is hardly firma as he pursues the hand of the gorgeous and recalcitrant Lydia Languish (Natalie Simpson). She’s also an upper-crustling, yet the war aims not only to liberate Europe but, on the home front, to liberate women from male dominance. Herself a pilot of hair-raising panache, Lydia leads the feminist charge by pursuing her sexual freedom among the lower classes. If she gets her way (and she always does, it seems), she’ll renounce her wealth and start a lemon farm in Yorkshire (such is her understanding of agriculture and real work of any kind) with a Cockney mechanic called Dudley Scunthorpe (Kelvin Fletcher). This hunk has other ideas. He’s in with love with the wise-cracking, fourth-wall-busting maid, Lucy (Kerry Howard) but doesn’t know how to show it. In this tangle of mislaid desires and mistaken identities there are lots off-color jokes delivered in front of colorful sets, with red-white-and-blue blows landed on Brexit Britain and its love affair with hierarchies.

Jack Absolute is a re-heat of Richard Sheridan’s acid, effervescent late-eighteenth-century comedy, The Rivals. In hastily writing the play, the impoverished but resourceful author first-time drew on his young life. Sheridan was a mostly ardent and often devious suitor of Elizabeth Linley, the daughter of a famous musical family and hailed as the greatest and most beautiful singer of the age. Thanks to various duels and abscondings, Sheridan pried her loose from the paternal grip. These escapades did not, however, lead to a happy ending but instead to volatile and unhappy marriage.

Portrait of Elizabeth Linley Sheridan at the keyboard, painted by Joshua Reynolds in 1775, the same year as the premiere of her husband Richard Sheridan’s The Rivals.

The first performance of The Rivals at the King’s Theatre in Drury Lane in January of 1775 was a legendary disaster. Rotten apples were thrown and even more bolts of verbal abuse. Sheridan took his lumps and learned his lessons and revised his “stage novel” within two weeks, getting the show back on the boards and miraculously transforming it into a huge hit and classic of the English theatre that has never left the repertory. He later acquired the Drury Lane Theatre while also becoming a longtime Member of Parliament where he was known both for his eloquent oratory and for the devastating quips he launched from the backbenches of the House of Commons. A friend of the American Revolution and a foe of British colonial abuses in India, his fortunes eventually turned, just as a show can even after it starts out of the gate well on a good night. Sheridan died in poverty in 1825 but was buried in glory in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey.

Like its theatrical heir Jack Absolute, The Rivals turns on issues of women’s independence (not least achieved through the empowering value of literature, which, as seen through the myopic gaze of masculine control, feeds the pathological fantasies of these novel-addicted ladies) and the manifest absurdities of love and social dinstinction.

The present update of Sheridan’s classic flows from the deft comic pen of Richard Bean, in collaboration with Oliver Chris. Bean has had two other plays done at the National Theatre that swim in the riptide of class and power: Young Marx, with the celebrated Shakespearean and film character actor Rory Kinnear in the title role as a madcap impoverished revolutionary in circumstances so straitened that they are both unbelievable and rife for comic exploitation; and One Man, Two Guvnors (adapted from Carlo Goldoni’s hit Rococo farce, The Servant of Two Masters) with late-night television host James Corden as an out-of-work skiffle player tyring to hide the fact that he’s simultaneously in the employ of a rich twit and a hard-bitten gangster in 1960s Brighton, a couple of decades and a few miles from the setting of Bean’s latest, Jack Absolute. Both these plays were screened in theaters around the world through NT Live, and so will Jack Absolute be this coming October.

Reviews of this latest Bean comedy have been mixed, a critical response that perhaps along with lingering reluctance to return to the close quarters of the theater, might explain why the house was at least a third empty on a perfect Saturday evening in London in August. Outisde the Southbank was thrumming with tourists tucking into street food and then joining the outdoor dance parties sprung up along the Thames with views across to the City of London, its corporate towers heckling unperturbable St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Like many a playwright before and after, Sheridan didn’t think much of critics, indeed went on to write a satiric play about one. In his introduction to the revised version of The Rivals Sheridan rehearsed his complaints with characteristic acerbity:

“As for the little puny critics, who scatter their peevish strictures in private circles, and scribble at every author who has the eminence of being unconnected with them, as they are usually spleen-swoln from a vain idea of increasing their consequence, there will always be found a petulance and illiberality in their remarks, which should place them as far beneath the notice of a gentleman, as their original dulness had sunk them from the level of the most unsuccessful author.”

The young reviewer of Jack Absolute writing in the Guardian (just before the pandemic, the venerable Michael Billington was ushered from his post as the paper’s theatre critic, a post he held for almost 50 years in which time he wrote more 10,000 reviews) blasted the play for its nostalgic embrace of England in its Finest Hour, even though the cast had been updated to reflect the diversity of the late empire with a Sikh poet manqué (Akshay Sharan) and an Australian lout (James Corrigan) as Jack’s rivals for Lydia’s affections.

In both The Rivals and Jack Absolute various suits are plied and misapplied. Jack even does his plying simultaneously, becoming his own rival as another character (that mechanic) whom he’s impersonating so as to attract the salt-of-the-earth lusts of Lydia. Another courtship is conducted between the dogmatic lover, Faulkland (Jordan Metcalfe) who wants his betrothed (Helena Wilson) to love him as a disembodied Platonic form rather than as sensual beast. When Faulkland (the first crisis over the eponymous islands in the south Atlantic was boiling over at the time of The Rivals) learns that the object of his affections has been dancing while away from him, Sheridan has the jealous young man serve up a steaming portion of comic outrage at the lures of flesh in motion:

“Country-dances! jigs and reels! am I to blame now? A minuet I could have forgiven—I should not have minded that—I say I should not have regarded a minuet—but country-dances!—Zounds! had she made one in a cotillion—I believe I could have forgiven even that—but to be monkey-led for a night!—to run the gauntlet through a string of amorous palming puppies!—to show paces like a managed filly!”

The mere thought of a high-class lady high-stepping like a peasant sends the philosophical lover Faulkland over the edge. Jack Absolute updates this eighteenth-century dirty dancing to the jitterbug, its enticements and entrapments, partner-swapping and acrobatic on-the-fly maneuvers reanimating the staid jostling of polite Georgian society and its impolite desires. These endless spin-offs of the Charleston make for a musical metaphor for the duels in the skies above: the dance becomes a dogfight of the genders.

Lydia tries her strident best to resist Jack’s suave and moneyed charms when the two find themselves unexpectedly in the quaint and cramped bedroom (the sets are artfully and not unironically designed by Mark Thompson) in the mansion on the estate where the emergency airfield has been set up. From this boudoir lovers’ spat the stage opens up to a club dance floor where the pair relives their first flirtations and falling out. The whole cast joins in as the couple dances in the past while arguing in the present, the choreography leading them through exuberant, even absurd contortions and entanglements, as when Lydia finds herself held upside down by her legs, her face poking out just under Jack’s crotch at the crux of their quarrel.

The plays’ most famous character is not the title one, but a creation called Mrs. Malaprop (Caroline Quentin). She’s an unabashed linguistic mangler whose name marks Sheridan’s single most enduring gift to the English language. Quentin has great fun trilling her way through the updated malapropisms (e.g. prostate rather than prostrate) and even deftly improvising her way out of some tight spots, turning unscripted slips of an already-slipping tongue into comic gold. Sheridan’s original was lambasted by many for its lewdness, which he partially scrubbed away and covered over in his own re-write. But those original cracks come off as subtle innuendo compared to the dirt shoveled up by Crisp and Bean, as when the Australian lout asks Faulkland, “Did you finger her?”

In the same bedroom where Lydia and Jack are overtaken by the jitterbug, Mrs. Malaprop tries to seduce Jacks’ father, the blustering Sir Anthony Absolute. In her distant youth, she was queen of a dance hall that Sir Anthony just happened to frequent. She breaks out her lascivious act one last time, concluding her show-stopping number with a stratospheric soprano note pushed out of her by an inadvertent showgirl splits—all while accompanying herself on a ukulele.

Through all this raving silliness and canny societal critique, Jack Absolute does what theater should do: provide a platform—a stage!—for the talents of its cast. But however artfully treacherous and titillating its welter of words, this is a show that springs most vibrantly to life when it sings and dances.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com