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Playtime at Royal and Derngate – review

The famous French film is brought to the stage

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
© Manuel Harlan

Playtime might sound like a show on Cbeebies, but this innovative theatre experience is an adaptation of Jacques Tati's hugely influential 1967 French film, brought to the stage for the first time.

We first meet Tati's most famous character, Monsieur Hulot (Enoch Lwanga), as he dawdles around the forestage in his Homberg, overcoat and too-short trousers, silently taking in the bustle of post-war Paris.

Using skilful physical comedy with sharp timing, Playtime follows multiple random characters as they go about their day, virtually wordless, sometimes interacting with Hulot. Think Mr Bean, without the gurning and burbling, but on stage (Rowan Atkinson has cited Hulot as an inspiration).

American tourist Barbara, (the graceful Yuyu Rau) and Mr Hulot fleetingly meet, reluctantly separate, and navigate their day just moments apart.

We're in an airport, a trade show, then an office, a hotel room and a restaurant. At Northampton's Royal and Derngate, Tati's famously enormous set, depicting a bustling, shiny, sterile ‘60s Paris, is cleverly condensed. Multiple retreating proscenium arches give an extraordinary sense of depth, allowing the characters to move stage left to right and back, over and over, with superfast costume changes aided from the wings. A plane moves past in the background and it's hilarious. Other classic sight gags roll by, almost relentlessly.

It's hard to believe that just five cast members play dozens of parts, which adds to the laughs. Just one actor, Abigail Dooley, plays 26 characters. The costume changes must be frantic.

At times, it felt just too long, the joke repeated just too often, but then another cleverly timed gag catches you, pulling you back to people-watching.

Valentina Ceschi, who also co-directs, is an athletic, expressive comedienne. Martin Bassindale's elegant, multifaceted performance compels you to watch him whether he's a a nervous pilot or a camp waiter.

Tati's intention for an intricately detailed, visual way of storytelling, with the lead as an observer alongside the audience, is honoured by the creative team, Dancing Brick.

But sometimes the source feels too honoured – I'm sure those who love the film would anticipate the ‘modern', office sign-in machine section - but for me, this slowed things to a bored walk.

The headline is original music by Martha Wainwright, Chilly Gonzales and Pierre Grillett, and the sound is hugely important, but again, sometimes, a bit relentless.

Nevertheless, Playtime is ambitious, funny and definitely worth experiencing, especially as the run refines each show. Fais-le vite!