Boeing, Boeing – Highbury Theatre
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 Boeing”, a farce in a form made popular by Brian Rix, but with a distinctive Gallic favour. It is approaching fifty years old from when it first opened in 1960 , and ran for seven years in the West End, but 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. Written pre-Brexit, it now reappears almost post- Brexit , it’s national stereotypes ripe for re-examination. It is a favourite with amateur companies, and with good reason. It is surprising how little variation there is between how the French see Americans, Italians and Germans, and the British view.
Set in Paris in the sixties, and originally featuring two Frenchmen, for this production, the men are British as is their housekeeper, whilst the young 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 assisted by his long- suffering housekeeper Bertha who would rather not be doing any housekeeping whatsoever. However, the arrival of old friend Robert both complicates matters, and provides vital auxiliary assistance, when Bernard’s carefully organised diary begins to nosedive from 35,000 feet as new faster aircraft shred his meticulous diary arrangements.
The simple, but effective set, inevitably boasted a lot of doors which opened and closed with increasing frequency as the farce hotted up. A mock -up of an a fish tank was an idiosyncratic guilty pleasure to spot. The sixties were a time of expanding travel when being an air hostess was the height of glamour, falling only just short of being a film actress. The costumes of the air hostesses were authentic, and colour coded, red for TWA, yellow for Lufthansa, and blue for Alitalia ( which helped Bernard identify which fiancé he was entertaining) . The fitted uniform jackets and pencil skirts pleasing on the eye.
The action pivots around Edward Hockin as Bernard, whose louche, smug, swagger is soon pricked by the logistical chaos which envelops him with the unstoppable power of four Pratt & Whitney engines. He gives an angular, physical performance reminiscent of John Cleese’s Basil Fawlty, trying, and failing, to keep his disintegrating domestic arrangements from collapse. Robert Hicks, as Robert, is a strong foil to Bernard. He enters the production like a lamb, but leaves like a lion, with a girl to boot! His erstwhile provincial innocence falling away as he starts to savour cosmopolitan city life.
Sandra Haynes plays Bertha deadpan, laconic, droll, and world – weary. She shuffles, whilst the other young women shimmy. Christina Peak is a joy as TWA hostess Gloria. Flamboyant, brash, man-eating and sassy, her performance visibly grew in confidence as the play unfolded. Representing Lufthansa is Liz Adnitt as Gretchen, borrowing some mannerisms from “Allo Allo”’s Helga, reserved but with hitherto unrealised passion. She slipped into the Teutonic stereotype with ease. Her physical comedy with Robert was particularly pleasing. Third fiancé aboard is Bhupinder Brown, Alitalia’s Gabriella, who threw herself enthusiastically into her sex kitten role, coquettish, sexy and …Italian. All three women retained their accents admirably and consistently.
The first half of the show is longer than the manic second, but never drags. Director Ian Appleby understands the raw ingredients of farce, and this production offers pace, slamming doors and comedy aplenty. He has not “sexed up” the production. The men’s trousers stay on, the ladies undress more covered than their daywear, there is nothing to offend, and by modern standards the script, bar the opening line, is not particularly bawdy. Maiden aunts will require no supplies of smelling salts. It is easy to see why this farce has endured, and remains popular. This production does full justice to the original spirit and vision of the show, running until 3rd February.