Tuesday 4th September 2018 at Harrogate Theatre
Dating three flight attendants at once, Bernard has it all to begin with – he’s living the dream; the cat with the cream; the rapper with the gold teeth; the kid with all the candy etc etc – yet such bliss can’t possibly last in a farce and true to form, chaos very gradually descends until Bernard’s dream is decidedly more of a treadmill nightmare. Under the direction of Ben Roddy, Harrogate Theatre’s brand new Rep Company give Camoletti’s Boeing Boeing a fabulous outing. It’s a comedy which feels a little too big and brash to begin with as we’re thrown into the deep end with loud characters and hysterical, slobbering romance but it demands that we liven up and get on board, dragging us along an entertaining ride of crossed purposes and human pinball…
Alan Drake’s Bernard is that cocky, smug type (at least to begin) – he sits in his living room like one ruling a kingdom but as the threads begin to unravel, Drake is given ample opportunity to demonstrate some excellent comic abilities, cracking us up with a single look or a perfectly timed pause as his imagination flails and fails to undig a hole. While Drake’s character excels with the scripted comedy, Philip Stewart (playing Bernard’s pal Robert)’s physicality is blooming marvellous. From classic slapstick sprawls to perfectly incongruous contortions, he’s a real force f nature and a brilliant source of comedy throughout. Yet snatching the crown from both is Rebecca Wheatley as Bertha, the over -worked maid. A single look from Wheatley gets shoulders shaking by the end of it all and Wheatley’s performance across the play deftly creates a habit of our eyes searching for Bertha’s silent reactions to any given big moment, and every time, she delivers. Wheatley also gets a nice Mrs Doubtfire moment complete with disco lighting design from Keith Tuttle, just to cement her role as all-round comic gem.
As for ‘the women’, there’s a reason Bernard refers to them in terms of cuisine; Gloria is ‘the American’ dressed in red who craves all things sugary, Gabriella is ‘the Italian’ dressed in blue and Gretchen is ‘the German’ in yellow with a taste for sauerkraut. Polly Lister’s Gloria is a strain on the ears with her hysterical squeals and her stereotypically inflated characterisation – she gets the best twist and Lister makes sure that we appreciate the shift between our first glimpse of Gloria as a smoochy smitten fiancé to a woman with a clear (all be it vain) sense of self. Gabriella gets a similarly stereotypical characterisation from Katy Dean who goes from the object of lust with sensual rolling of her r’s to the angry Italian making her demands known. Polly Smith’s Gretchen is, yes, another stereotype: commanding and dismissive until she’s swooning and grinning like a lovesick teen all over again. The accents are patchy to say the least but I think in a silly comedy like this, most of those in the audience don’t mind much – and in some ways a poor accent only increases the comedy.
It does have to be said that Camoletti’s script doesn’t age well considering our current gender representation-sensitive society. Early on, a smug Bernard discusses his women like a selection in his shopping basket- there’s a whole lot of variety with people and flavours over at Bernard’s place. Equally, his pal Robert is initially rather slimy and borderline predatory as he listens to his mate wax lyrical about his highly calculated take on polygamy, drooling and smirking at the sight of the women and rubbing his knees with all the excitement of a Peeping Tom. But despite this slimy scene which is obviously necessary to set the scene, the play as a whole is a sharply constructed farce which is directed with equally sharp vision and wonderfully sharp timing and pace from the cast. The script improves as the performance moves on and the laughs get louder – the men become more likeable the more they desperately try to create order from scenes of near-devastation. We know they technically deserve disaster but we’re also rooting for them – the women nearly colliding leaves us in limbo as to who we’d like to see triumphant in the end – the men working up a sweat to protect deceptions, or the silly women blindly in love. Thankfully, the women depicted as rather brainless and bimbo-ish gradually become more autonomous and even branch out into real conviction and a solid sense of control – best of all, through their character development, the slime ball men become the butt of their own jokes.
Farce is a tall order. Slapstick and the near-miss juggling act of many doors are equally challenging. This production handles those challenges very nicely and on Andy Newell’s statement baby blue set complete with hip 60’s decor and clean lines, the cast earn big laughs. My favourite thing about this production is the climb. While the energy and pace impress in Act 1, everything really takes off in Act 2 when the silly excuses to combat near misses become increasingly hilarious wild claims and the physical comedy ascends endlessly into frenetic action which earns belly-laughs from the audience. I remember seeing a production of Boeing Boeing a fair few years ago, and I remember being completely underwhelmed. This production has redeemed Camoletti’s play for me and I’m sure I’ll remember it as an evening very well spent.
Boeing Boeing plays the the Harrogate Theatre until September 8th 2018 and you can find tickets here.