Boeing Boeing

Marc Camoletti, translated by Beverley Cross
Comedy Theatre
(2007)

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In its day, during the 1960s and 1970s, Boeing Boeing was the kind of star vehicle that The Vagina Monologues and Art (with the same director, Matthew Warchus) became a generation later. It was a high class farce that was sold on the back of casts of actors from hit TV shows.

I was reminded of this after bumping into actor/journalist Michael Simkins on the tube on the way to the theatre. His recollection is of a production in Brighton featuring the cast of Man About the House: Richard O'Sullivan, Sally Thomsett, Paula Wilcox and Doug Fisher. A little later I saw a touring version that starred Emmerdale Farm's Frazer Hines.

It is a good bet that another dozen people would have similar memories with just the actors' names changed. This begs the question as to why the current revival features three of the finest actors currently to be seen in the West End, accompanying three attractive young ladies with the perfect credentials (including the longest of legs).

Roger Allam plays Bernard, a man who serially dates air hostesses from different nations. His life is ruled by an air schedule compendium, which tells him who he will be sleeping with on any given night.

He gleefully explains this to his old school friend, Mark Rylance's Welsh-accented country bumpkin Robert. As the assurances that nothing can go wrong are repeated, it does not take a genius to realise that they will.

Robert's superbly designed flat, courtesy of Rob Howell, like its owner enjoys generally colourful trios in almost every design, including mirrors and hanging lights that look like the onion domes of Russian churches. For obvious theatrical reasons, this curving Parisian penthouse also contains almost wall to wall doors, seven of them.

It is ruled over by a cheerlessly lazy Mrs Mop, played hilariously by Frances de la Tour, famed for Rising Damp and more recently The History Boys. She it is that has to cover for the boss by cooking the right food for each lady.

This is a world of national stereotypes so they eat what their country requires and respectively behave like an American, German and Italian would have in cartoons of the time. Indeed, The Green Wing's Michelle Gomez, playing the tigerish German Gretchen, is so much like a stormtrooper that at one point she practically salutes and seems on the point of screaming "Heil Hitler".

Her over-acting is almost matched by EastEnder Tamzin Outhwaite as Gloria, the cute, independent American, and Daisy Beaumont playing romantic Italian Gabriella.

As the evening goes on, Rylance, becoming more and more like Stan Laurel, is drawn into protecting his friend from the three women's wrath and even gets a big piece of the lip-locking action. Without his help, poor old Bernard would surely have suffered heart failure, as even with it, the red-faced Allam looks close to apoplexy at times.

On opening night, the audience seemed to be divided between farce fans who had a great time and others who were baffled as to why this ageing comedy of almost three hours duration should have been revived.

The three senior actors each give their all, in technically adept performances, but they are still limited by portraying one-dimensional characters. Their younger colleagues do the necessary, seducing the men both on and off stage.

The public will decide whether this play will soar to the heavens or, despite the acting and some great comic moments, it will soon be a case of "Boeing Boeing Gone". If it is the latter, that will at least free up three of the country's finest actors for something more worthy of their talents.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher