Jill Hyem’s title for her witty new comedy shows just how astute she is – for her target audience enjoying dinner theatre at the Mill at Sonning will recognise the famous quote from Casablanca without resorting to Google. From the moment the lights go up on Michael Holt’s wonderfully evocative set, a mansardique Paris attic all pink-stained wood, the audience are laughing appreciatively with these ladies of a certain age enjoying everything Paris has to offer – wine, food, shopping, culture – and, of course, men.
And if those same audience members find themselves singing not that "Vie en rose" set but the scene changes, that’s because director Joanna Read makes a virtue of the necessity of moving the furniture by covering them with delightful old recordings of almost every iconic French chanson you can think of.
Hyem brings together in “Gay Paree” three old school-friends who could not be more different – retired headmistress Nancy enjoying a well-deserved cultural fling, recently widowed Anna, finally released from caring for her demanding invalid husband and defiantly still-sexy much-married Raquel simply enjoying a fling. Add to the equation a French landlady who’s as rabidly Anglophobic as she is chicly French and a resting actor of a certain age and Gallic charm who moonlights as a handyman and you have the ingredients not so much for French farce as heart-warming comedy of self discovery and the rediscovery of friendship on the Left Bank.
There’s a nice chemistry between the three performers playing the school-friends, and they put over splendidly their renewed friendship spiced with oneup(wo)manship, especially evident when they play the French version of Monopoly. There’s no risk of the atmosphere getting too cosy, for Marlene Sidaway spikes Nancy’s twinkling warmth with a nice direct tartness towards Louise Jameson’s outrageously voracious Raquel, deliciously tarty in denim miniskirt, black tights and leopardskin wedges. And the transformative powers of Paris (with a little help from her school-friends) on mousy Anna are so beautifully realised in Lucy Fleming’s sympathetic performance, as she returns from a shopping spree in one of costume designer Jane Kidd’s stylish ensembles, that the audience cannot help but gasp appreciatively.
There’s strong support from Anna Nicholas as the glacial landlady Madame Boussiron, with authentic French accent and Michael Fender as the still charming and extremely handy man Charlot (albeit with slightly less authentic accent).
This does not pretend to be ground-breaking theatre, but it connects so well with its audience that when the lights went up on the second act to reveal Nancy in a predicament that I cannot give away, we, –the entire matinée house – cooed “Ah!” in very real sympathy.