Original Songs: Chilly Gonzales & Pierre Grillet, and Martha Wainwright
Writer: Jacques Tati
Adaptor: Dancing Brick
Directors: Valentina Ceschi and Thomas Eccleshare
Playtime is, you may think, an unusual choice for the latest Made in Northampton production. It’s based on the Jacques Tati film of the same name, a silent movie with practically no plot; a film with an enormous set (a large cityscape built specifically for the production) and a large cast. Here in Northampton things are a bit different, as five actors take us through the show in the Royal auditorium.
Dancing Brick’s approach to the challenge is to go for the laughs, and laughs there are aplenty in a production that relies heavily on slapstick and visual humour. Like the film, it is largely silent with only small snippets of dialogue, often just a few words which get no audible response.
The film depicts people making their way through a sterile world of modern technology, and there must have been a huge temptation to bring it up to date – a temptation that has been resisted and what designer Michael Vale has given us is instead an impression of technology with a slightly futuristic twist, but as viewed through the eyes of someone living in the 1960s. Through this the ensemble makes its way, covering a multitude of characters between them, and often playing many different roles in the same scene.
The plot is so thin as to be practically transparent and features a brief love story between M Hulot (Enoch Lwanga) and American tourist Barbara (Yuyu Rau). This is really incidental though, as the play is more a series of different scenes barely linked by anything dramatically. We start in the arrivals hall of an airport, as a group of American tourists arrive, a sequence that features a running gag with an escalator and moving walkway, a gag which just manages to tread the line between comedy and overuse. This sets the tone for the rest of the production, with constant streams of different characters all played by the five actors whose characterisation and attention to detail are superb. It’s non-stop for the cast, as people exit one side of the stage and appear on the other only seconds later as a different character.
Nowhere is this concept demonstrated more than in the hotel scene, a scene that those familiar with the film may remember as the apartment. Here we see two adjacent hotel rooms, with Hulot in one room and the tourist group in the other, with Martin Bassindale doubling as a tourist hunting for canapés and a bellboy who Hulot has sent to find some for him. Meanwhile, Valentina Ceschi plays a glamorous Parisian and a hotel maid who are in the adjacent rooms at the same time, a glorious piece of comedy and costume changing. The cast is completed by Abigail Dooley, who has a lovely sequence as a snobbish but increasingly frustrated Maitre d’.
It’s a piece rammed full of gags, so many that it’s easy to miss some. Like the film, this seems to be the point they’re trying to make although it’s maybe too subtle to see – it’s not about the obvious protagonist M Hulot, who is absent or in the background of many of the scenes. It’s about the humour that we can find in life, in the people we share our space with and in what’s going on around us.
It’s unlikely to set the world alight but it’s extremely well done, and well worth a visit to catch something that will have you laughing out loud.
Runs Until 17 September 2022