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Review: ONCE IN A LIFETIME, Young Vic

After a 2016 programme that included Blue/Orange and Yerma, the first offering in the Young Vic's new season is a revival of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's Once in a Lifetime, which also marks comedian Harry Enfield's stage debut.

It opens at the turning point in the history of cinema: Jerry (Kevin Bishop) has just seen Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer and can sense a way to make their fortune, so when May (Claudie Blakley) hits upon exploiting the fact that the movie actors have never spoken on film before, they head west with George (John Marquez) to open a school of elocution. No sooner do they get their foot in the door at Glogauer's studios than they get their marching orders - until George accidentally becomes studio supervisor, tasked with making all creative decisions. Through luck, rather than judgment, he becomes a success.

George is not the sharpest tool in the box, but has a fantastic memory, which allows him to repeat text and speeches verbatim at just the right times. He talks but doesn't really say anything, yet gains power and influence. In his hands this is harmless: all he wants is to be with his friends and to make his sweetheart happy. However, it does raise the point that we need to listen carefully to what people say and work out whether they can deliver on it before we make any final decisions. A message that comes a little late for this year's big choices, though shows the play's relevance.

Hyemi Shin's set is simple and elegant in its design, but makes clever use of the revolve to show different parts of the studios, particularly when we are first introduced to them. There are some little nods to early cinema which are quirky but don't always work - for example, a black and white moving background as they make their train journeys seems a little incongruous with everything else in glorious technicolour.

Somewhat ironically given their initial venture of the elocution school, there are occasions where dialogue is lost, due to the speed of their speech (combined with their accents) or simply not giving the audience enough time to stop laughing before continuing with their speech. However, it is a strong company and there are many memorable performances. Lucy Cohu is fabulously over-the-top as glamorous film critic Helen Hobart, and Enfield seems very much at home on the stage playing studio chief Herman Glogauer.

John Marquez stands out with his performance of well-meaning George, giving the show real heart. His relationship with aspiring actress Susan Walker (played perfectly by the ever-hilarious Lizzy Connolly) is endearing as well as funny, thanks to the pair's chemistry and natural sense of comedy.

Despite a bit of a slow start, the show gains momentum once the trio reaches Tinseltown and get their plans in motion. Initially written as a satirical reaction to the new Hollywood trend, this production finds a new relevance to the show outside of the movie studios. Increasingly ridiculous as time goes on, Once in a Lifetime is an entertaining two hours that will keep you chuckling after the curtain comes down.

Once in a Lifetime is at the Young Vic until 14 January 2017

Picture credit: Johan Persson

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