Recent years have seen a slew of productions about Hollywood, from the magic of its inception in Travelling Light to its seedy latter days in Speed-the-Plow. Falling chronologically between the two is George S Kaufman’s bawdy 1930 comedy Once in a Lifetime, which charts the upheaval brought about by the arrival of the “talkie”.
In Kaufman’s play the nouveau riche film industry is thrown into disarray when it realises none of its actors know how to speak properly. The subject is ripe for satire but the jokes have dated badly, and this production is rarely inspired enough to give them fresh meaning.
Director Richard Jones relies on a stream of awkward physical gags to paper over the cracks: two women getting wedged in a doorway, someone “answering” a stapler instead of a phone. The pacing, meanwhile, is skittish, rolling from one conceit to the next; a dance number here, a running slapstick gag there.
Equal weight is given to the three loose plot-strands – three Vaudeville actors moving to Hollywood to set up a dubious voice-acting school; an infuriating ingénue actress trying to build a career; and a playwright trying to catch a meeting with a studio exec – resulting in a procession of characters jostling for stage time, with nobody in particular to root for.
Largely anonymous amongst all this is Harry Enfield, the darling of the promotional material, who marks his stage debut. He plays Herman Glogauer with the shuffling gait of his 90s sketch-show creation The Yorkshireman, but there’s little charisma in evidence and he’s comfortably outshone by the parade of sequinned dresses and glittering tiaras.
Where the production shines is its set design, with the sectional, rotating stage offering momentary glances into machinations of the studio; rooms piled high with film-reels, tiny model planes mounted on sticks, the accoutrements of elocution classes. These snippets do more to evoke the spirit of 1930s Hollywood than two hours of dialogue.
Once in a Lifetime is a satire of a young Hollywood, but it’s also a love-letter to the forgotten men of Broadway who penned Hollywood’s early classics. Like most love letters, this one would have been better left unsent.
First published in City A.M.