France has produced some fine playwrights of weight and comedy – Molière, Racine, Yasmina Reza and Feydeau, to name but a few. But its most frequently performed playwright worldwide is Marc Camoletti, author of “ Boeing Boieng”, a farce in a form made popular by Brian Rix, but with a distinctive Gallic favour. Although now some forty five years old from when it first opened in 1960 , and ran for seven years in the West End, its mix of sexual comedy and national stereotypes still resonates long after the rumble of the engines of Super Caravelles have disappeared into the distance.
Set in Paris, and originally featuring two Frenchmen, the play was recently revived with two American men in the male roles. For this production, the men are British, whilst the women retain their national identities. The plot is simple, playboy Bernard has three fiances who are air hostesses with different airlines whose conflicting schedules means that he runs a menage a quatre, enabling him to always enjoy one at home, whilst the others are the other side of the world. This arrangement is normally assisted by his long suffering French housekeeper Bertha. However the arrival of old friend Robert complicates matters and provides vital auxilliary assistance when Bernard’s carefully organised diary begins to nosedive from 35,000 feet as new faster aircraft shred his meticulous diary arrangements
Director Christopher Waters’ task in producing this play was complicated by two very late cast changes. It is to the enormous credit of all involved that the identity of the late additions was not at all apparent. Jennifer Mears took on Bertha the housekeeper with a week to go – and is an absolute delight. Laconic, droll, world – weary, and acerbic, she shuffles whilst the other girls shimmy, and steals the show whenever she appears. Sarah Carter only had two weeks longer to get up to speed as Pan Am hostess Gloria. Flamboyant, brash, man-eating and sassy, her confident performance was a delight. Representing Lufthansa is Phebe Jackson as Gretchen. As well as being beautiful, she has presence , enabling her to play the Teutonic stereotype with ease. The physical jousting with Robert was particularly pleasing. Third fiancé aboard is Katrina Ann Foster, Ait Italia’s Gabriella, who revelled in her sex kitten role, coquettish, sexy and …Italian.
The show opens with theatre emergency exit procedure helpfully demonstrated by all three girls, who along with Bertha, retained their accents admirably and consistently. Martin Groves deserves particular credit for a sumptuous, lavish and convincing flat interior that inevitably boasted a lot of doors which opened and closed with increasing frequency as the farce hotted up. The costumes of the air hostesses including fitted jackets and pencil skirts were equally pleasing on the eye.
The action itself pivots around Dexter Whitehead as Bernard, whose smug swagger is soon pricked by the logistical chaos which envelops him with the unstoppable power of four Pratt & Whitney engines. I was a little confused by the programme notes which suggested that the setting was the 1980’s, some joyous period song classics from Sailor reinforce this, whilst the uniforms and some of the aircraft references seemed 1960’s, not that it affected proceedings or the audiences’ enjoyment of the show.
Rod Bisset as Robert is the perfect foil to Bernard. He enters the production like a lamb, but leaves like a lion, with a girl to boot! His erstwhile innocence falling away as he starts to savour city life. The first half of the show is longer than the manic second, but its two hour running time never drags. Waters understands the raw ingredients of farce, and this production offers pace, slamming doors and scantily clad girls aplenty. It is also worth noting that despite the late arrivals, not a prompt was heard, or entrance missed. Sexy without being sleazy, racy without being particularly bawdy, it is easy to see how this farce has endured, and this production does full justice to the original spirit and vision of the show, running until 17th January.