The hit comedy Boeing-Boeing received such brilliant reviews when it was in the West End, that you may be expecting an absolute laughter-riot. But, like a dodgy flight, it fluctuates, never quite becoming the hysterical comedy that during this recession, you so desperately want.
The plot is simple; Bernard is dating three stewardesses and the joke is, that their flights land at different times, providing him with a sexy siren every two days. His hapless maid Bertha struggles to keep up with the comings and goings and his cousin Robert, although shocked to begin with, attempts to get his friend out of trouble, wooing the ladies along the way.
This might sound incredibly dated and it is. Boeing-Boeing is French and although deftly translated by Beverley Cross and Francis Evans, the slim concept and farcical situations have been done so much better elsewhere. Noises Off and See How They Run have incredible physical comedy which leaves the audience aching with laughter. The laughs here are much more sporadic and gentle.
The performances are better than you expect as there are no real marquee names. Martin Marquez is perfect at conveying Bernard's womanising ways. But when chaos looms, he looks perplexed as opposed to broken. John Marquez fares better as Robert, as he rises to the challenge of the farce with ease and dexterity.
Of the three women, Sarah Jayne Dunn shines as American, Gloria and she is all the more impressive as this is her stage debut, yet acts like a theatre pro. Thaila Zucchi is amusing but renders her Gabriella so irritating after a few scenes, that you are willing the other girls onto the stage. Meanwhile Josephine Butler attacks her role as the German vamp with relish and determination.
The star of the show though is Susie Blake, a truly gifted comedienne, who often lifts Boeing-Boeing when it encounters some turbulence. Unfortunately, even she cannot save the play from being just mildly entertaining.
I cannot help thinking that if this was a British farce, it would have been written off years ago. The fact that it is Parisian is quaint but the constant mentions of "Monsieur" do remind you more of 'Allo 'Allo than a Tony Award winning comedy.
NOTE: The following FIVE-STAR review dates from 16 February 2007 when the production was in London.
Reality, brutality and hilarity, the holy trinity of vintage farce, are all present and correct in this brilliant, deliriously funny revival by Matthew Warchus of a much maligned 1960s West End dinosaur. It was not the done thing at all to be seen at an obvious crowd-pleaser in the decade of transformation in the British theatre at the RSC and the National.
So, while the beards and sandal brigade flocked to the Aldwych and the Old Vic, the busloads kept the tills ticking over at the Apollo (where Boeing-Boeing opened in 1962), then the Duchess, for over 2,000 performances in seven years. We now see that Marc Camoletti’s French fracas, beautifully translated by the late Beverley Cross, is as ferociously funny as Feydeau and as catastrophically classic as Corneille.
Bernard (Roger Allam) is a libidinous Parisian architect fixed up with air-hostesses by a friend at Orly airport. Another friend, the innocent and slow-witted Robert (Mark Rylance), comes to stay on the very day, naturally, when all three “fiancées” – Gloria from America, Gabriella from Italy and Gretchen from Germany – converge on the apartment as Bernard’s timetable implodes under pressure from airport delays, flight cancellations and inclement flying conditions.
The resultant string of disasters sees Bernard buffeted, bruised and hung out to dry – at one point, Allam staggers backwards across the whole stage in a panicky reverse sprint, all limbs akimbo - while Robert is slowly and inexorably sucked into the fray, subjected to extended kissing bouts by Gloria who is drawn to the shape of his mouth when he utters the phrase, “Impossible to say.” While Bernard is punished for his polygamy, Robert becomes a babe magnet, a role Rylance assumes with a placid Welsh indifference, fending off the aggressive Gretchen while explaining away a rogue airline bag as a receptacle for his “little things.”
Supervising the household where seven doors are in constant use on Rob Howell’s white, cool curvilinear design, is Bertha the maid, whom Frances de la Tour presents hilariously as a foot-dragging, seen-it-all slouch with a hang-dog air of unshakeable disapproval. Deadpan is too small a word to describe her reaction to Robert’s unwisely fulsome appreciation, likening her to a virgin in the story of the grail in the legend of the Nibelungen: “Well, I’ve been called worse…”
The casting of the stewardesses, neatly wrapped up in Hardy Amies-style, figure-hugging uniforms in red, blue and yellow (the flat is decorated with three large similarly coloured light balls) is unbeatable: Tamzin Outhwaite plays Gloria as an overpowering cheerleader with an Olympic medal oscular talent; Daisy Beaumont is prettily debauched and will finally land her man as a punishment; and Michelle Gomez, breathing fire and sadistic sexuality, is the lean, mean Gretchen who snares Robert like a Valkyrie at full tilt. The happy resolution is the biggest disaster of all.
The original Bernard and Robert in London were the legendary light comedians Patrick Cargill and David Tomlinson. I’m sure they were good, but could they possibly have been funnier? Allam and Rylance show that the best of our classical actors are capable of conquering the most difficult of all acting challenges, farce. This is the best West End partnership since Donald Sinden and Michael Williams in Ray Cooney’s Two into One, and easily the funniest evening in London, comparable only to last year’s heinously underrated revival of Philip King’s See How They Run.
And whatever you do, don’t leave before the curtain call, which is choreographed by Bruno Tonioli, inspired by the news that the next lot of airline stewardesses landing at Orly includes a sex-mad, booty-shaking Brazilian samba queen…
- Michael Coveney