Three less-than-successful vaudeville actors decide to leave New York and head for Hollywood to try their luck as voice coaches to the vocally challenged stars of Tinseltown; it is the age of the talkies and The Jazz Singer has just hit the screens.
Ben Paddon who played the innocent, but intellectually challenged George was lovely. It is he who is promoted to Director of Studios and who discovers, although rather late in the day, that he has made the wrong film. With an impeccable sense of comic timing and some priceless expressions, his performance was an absolute joy. He and his fellow vaudevillians, Bethan Gurr (May) and Callum Thomas (Jerry) carried much of the dialogue and consequently responsibility for much of the play’s momentum rested on their shoulders. One could not help but be impressed at the apparent ease with which they rose to this challenge.
As the star-struck Susan, Rosa Fairfield was superb and a definite contender for the title of world’s worst actress, whilst Martin Hanna as the larger-than-life film impresario Herman Glogauer, the wonder man of the talkies, gave a suitably manic performance. His were among the most memorable lines: “Everybody always acts at me” he rants early in the play, “that’s the way we do things here – no time wasted on thinking” he cries later, before eventually despairing that from now on “every picture we produce somebody has got to read it”.
There were many other delightful characters too. I particularly liked the inept Miss Leighton (Siedah Oniru), Florabel (Jessica Chloe Young) and Phyllis (Paisley Pascal) the frightful squeaky stars of the silent screen, and Kammerling the German wannabe (Luke Powell), who alone seems to have a sense of artistic integrity. Christopher Nash in the role of Lawrence Vail, the would-be playwright whom no-one can quite remember and who eventually has a nervous breakdown through under work was also terrific. His long diatribe towards the end of the first half had us all agreeing with his every word.
Delightful characterisation, stylish 1930s mannerisms and convincing American accents were among the most striking features of Ken Robertson’s sparky production. However, whilst the play itself requires considerable pace, it might have been better to have cut a little of the dialogue, some of which is over repetitive or simply serves to explain the plot, rather than to rely on the breakneck speed with which much of it was delivered. As it was, some of the verbal humour was almost certainly lost. The show was also notable for the tremendous attention to detail given to the overall design – set, costume, props, hair … you name it. AUB certainly deserves its high reputation in this field. A pity that musicians were not involved as well; what great opportunities there could have been for them.
It was, I suspect, a directorial decision to do the whole play as though it were a film. This was certainly a clever idea and allowed the many beautifully synchronised scene changes to become almost as important a part of the show as the actual dialogue and I for one looked forward to them. However, I wonder whether even more could have been made of this? Although we had a re-take of the opening moments of the opening scene for example, this was a one-off. Could not one or two other moments in the play have been treated in a similar way? We caught occasional glimpses of actors waiting in the wings, but they were just waiting. A little bit of offstage business might have been worth considering, maybe giving those actors with smaller cameo roles the opportunity to do a little more. And whilst the hardworking cameramen either side of the stage deserve awards for their considerable tenacity, they were definitely under used.
Once in a Lifetime was an absolutely ideal choice of play for a talented, committed and enterprising group of arts students and must have been as a much of a delight to have worked on as it was to have watched. It runs until Saturday.