(reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 9 March)
Comedy is as old as drama itself and the variation we call farce is probably its original manifestation. Farce in the UK is a well-established, well-loved genre which has developed in a peculiarly British way from Charley’s Aunt in the 1890s through the Aldwych (1930s) and the Whitehall seasons in the 1950s and 60s to Ayckbourn and Frayn in our own time.
Then there’s French farce, its sister – but not an identical twin. Many of the elements are identical – a multitude of doors revealing or concealing people (usually girls in a distinct state of undress) while at least one hapless man tries ever more frantically to control events of which he never really was the master in the first place.
Both the British and French versions rely on the actors’ split-second timing and sense of ensemble. It helps if at least the protagonist has a clown’s miming ability. Which brings me to Matt Devitt’s production of Marc Camoletti’s Boeing! Boeing! at the Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch.
The plot concerns a Parisian man-about-town in the early 1960s who is basking in the fly-by attentions of three air hostesses (remember that this was a time when to be an air stewardess was as high a profile job as that of model or television presenter is today). Each thinks she’s his only “fiancée” (the Beverley Cross translation is of its era), thanks to Bernard’s canny manipulation of timetables.
Enter Robert, an old school friend up from the country on business who – not unnaturally – is riveted by this boulevardier lifestyle. Fred Broom plays increasingly harassed Bernard and Tom Cornish is Robert, puppy-dog eager to be involved and whose well-meaning attempts to help only – of course – make matters worse.
Then there’s Bertha (Megan Leigh Mason), Bernard’s maid, who becomes increasingly frustrated as timetables go awry. Bridging the gap between what would have been the first two acts, she earned her round of applause. The three contrasted air hostesses are go-getting Gloria (Ellie Rose Boswell) from TWA, Lufthansa’s valkyrie Gretchen (Joanna Hickman) and spirited Gabriella of Air Italia (Sarah Mahony).
Norman Coates’ set is another excellent one with clever projections and animations before the performance to remind us of time and place. His costumes are also spot-on. What rather lets it all flag, for all the cast’s hard work, is that the production lacks both the slick lightness of classic French farce and the knowingness of the home-grown British variety.
I’ve seen other productions of Boeing! Boeing! in the last couple of years where, for me, this hasn’t been an issue. This time it was one.
Boeing! Boeing! runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 28 March.