Writer: Marc Camoletti
Director: Ben Roddy
Designer: Andy Newell
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
For the next three weeks, Harrogate Theatre is reverting to the days of weekly rep, with Phil and Ben Productions (that’s Stewart and Roddy) creating what, in these days of pop-up theatres, could be called a pop-up rep company.
For many years repertory companies acted as the backbone of regional theatre. In some cities large and highly accomplished companies put on runs of three or four weeks, but in smaller towns the staple was weekly rep: in any week one play would be performed, another rehearsed and a third read and cast. This provided a huge spread of plays for the local public, but standards were variable: any play needing more than eight actors could necessitate the appearance onstage of a reluctant stage carpenter and two shows on a Saturday evening (6.15 and 8.45, maybe) could result in the wholesale butchery of longer plays.
Phil and Ben have safeguarded the standards at Harrogate with great success: a company of nine doing three plays, each with five or six characters, means that for the most part, each actor plays two roles, some only one, far from the hectic schedule of picking up a new part every week for, say, a three month season.
The plays are well chosen as typical weekly rep fare: a farce, a thriller and a light comedy, with relatively small casts and a single set (or, in one case, two sets). All are unashamedly old-fashioned. Boeing Boeing, much the newest (1962), has modern trappings but is firmly in the tradition of French farce.
One of the joys of weekly rep was seeing regulars in different types of role and that is limited in the Harrogate short season. However, the cast of Boeing Boeing appears to have been chosen very much for their ability to play strenuous high farce and it will be interesting to see the versatility of the four who appear in later plays.
Marc Camoletti’s play, in Beverley Cross’ clever translation, depends on a Parisian Lothario, Bernard, and an airline schedule. Bernard has three “fiancées”, each an air hostess on a different airline, who are in Paris at different times. The schedule is his bible: he is confident the “fiancées” will never meet. One is tempted to ask whether there was ever bad weather in the 1960s or whether the French air traffic controllers had yet learned how to strike, but this is not the real world.
Of course, it all falls apart. Faster Boeing jets bring revised schedules and the weather finally bestirs itself. Meanwhile, Robert, Bernard’s old friend, has come to visit and, having admired Bernard’s system, is there to witness its collapse, whether loyally supporting his friend’s lies or taking advantage of his discomfiture, as three “fiancées” appear simultaneously.
It’s no coincidence that Camoletti was Swiss: the play is meticulously engineered, runs like clockwork – soulless, maybe, but smart and funny. Ben Roddy’s direction pitches it at just the right height above normal behaviour, rather irritating in the early exposition scenes, but finally triumphantly justified.
Polly Lister (Gloria – American), Katy Dean (Gabriella – Italian) and Polly Smith (Gretchen – German) play their national stereotypes to the hilt, each making it abundantly clear why Bernard finds her charms irresistible – for a third of the time, at least.
There is a lot of well-applied pantomime experience here and it’s most obvious in the characters of Robert and Bertha, Bernard’s servant. Philip Stewart as the randy country mouse merges perplexity with opportunism and is a master of the pratfall (his relationship with a beanbag particularly interesting) and Rebecca Wheatley does a virtuoso turn as the put-upon cook, both of them doing double-takes like they’re going out of fashion. One wonders at first whether Alan Drake (Bernard) could have a touch more of the boulevardier, but his very normality works perfectly, especially as a contrast to his later manic desperation.
Andy Newell’s set is brightly attractive, with a full complement of doors, seven in all, to aid the farce.
The Harrogate Rep Season runs until September 22, 2018 | Image: Contributed