— Kimberley Sustad, Jonathon Young. Photo by David Cooper.
This is Alan Twigg's review of the Arts Club production from last winter.
Roll over, Molière.
The sexual hijinks of an American philanderer with three stewardesses in his groovy and faux sophisticated Paris apartment, circa 1960, are the basis for Boeing-Boeing, a frothy and flailingly physical farce of flamboyantly forgettable dimensions, cited as the most performed French play in the world.
If you go expecting high art from anything dubbed “a mile-high comedy,” get over it. Boeing-Boeing is meant to be fun. By all means, let bums fill seats if frothy fare enables the Arts Club to take risks elsewhere. One-line reviews heard from the departing audience on a Thursday night included, “That was awesome!” and “Wasn’t that cool?”
(Anyone who saw TJ Dawe’s enthralling Medicine at the Firehall and the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of David Grieg’s audaciously original The Undoing of Prudentia Hart at Wise Hall during the same week might have been tempted to look askance at Boeing-Boeing as a ditzy, hetero-retro culture shock. But we digress.)
Billed as a farce, this campy Arts Club version directed by David Mackay has over-the-top performances that wouldn’t look out of place on Saturday Night Live. The exception is Nicola Lipman as a chronically disgruntled French maid and cook, Berthe. Sometimes it feels like she’s in an entirely different play; not a mere romp, but a comedy of manners. Her comic moments are unexpected, her accent has hints of subtlety and she moves with poise.
Bernard’s three stewardesses are Gretchen (German), Gabriella (Italian) and Gloria (American). All have keys to his bachelor pad; all are his fiancées. By assiduously keeping track of their flight schedules, Bernard can dupe all three and boast, “There’s no chance of ever being bored—it’s paradise!”
Most of the comedy arises from Bernard’s sexually inexperienced friend from Wisconsin, Robert, who must improvise with the long-suffering Berthe to keep the girls from knowing Robert’s secrets. Berthe has to change the sheets and photos in the bedroom; Robert must concoct absurd excuses for Bernard while getting increasingly excited by the proximity of his pal’s mini-harem.
Some people like to watch old television programs like Leave It To Beaver, Happy Days, Three’s Company and now Seinfeld. It’s comforting to view preceding eras as innocent, less complicated. Boeing-Boeing is like that. The girls are presumably on the pill. The furniture is ridiculous. Bernard, our self-satisfied Romeo, drinks at all hours. We are entering a leisure land of pure silliness in which a line like, “Fiancées are much friendlier than wives!” can get a big laugh.
Just as people read murder mysteries in order to have the detective solve the crime and put the world reassuringly back in order, Boeing-Boeing sends its audience home with the comforting knowledge that is impossible to have more than one sexual mate.
Colleen Wheeler as the bombastic, buxom Gretchen gives a huge performance as an obnoxious German fräulein. Kimberley Sustad slithers nicely as the possibly lascivious but cold-minded American. And Moya O’Connell is both sultry and fiery as a wannabe Loren. There’s lots of mawkish kissing but never any real sexual fireworks with Jonathan Young as Robert, who is basically the straight man of the piece. If there’s any ‘heart’ on stage, it beats within Andrew McNee’s nervous Nellie role—he alone has a transformation arc.
The crowd is delighted when Bernard and Robert momentarily mimic homo humping. And it’s oddly refreshing when our Wisconsin ingénue tries to assert himself with Gabriella by shouting, “I said-a No!” But the highlight of the evening turns out to be the curtain call when the curvaceous gals get to vamp it up, showing off those wonderful Sixties stewardess outfits designed by Nancy Bryant. The crowd whistles and cheers. Safe sex. It’s what they came for.