When, next Spring, the Congress Theatre re-opens to a burst of joy, a superb 2019 schedule, and a few quiet sighs of relief, we should also be glancing 50 yards eastwards to the splendid achievement of the Devonshire Park.
It has kept the town’s professional theatre not simply alive, but brimming with enjoyable entertainment. From pantomime to subtly scaled-down classical concerts, world-class ballet and opera. From one-nighters to children’s shows to comedy and high-quality straight drama. The Devvy has rarely been dark.
Welcome, then, Phil and Ben Productions – that’s Phil Stewart and Ben Roddy, two seasoned and resourceful actor-directors, who have rustled up a proficient and humorous revival of Marc Camoletti’s 1962 farce. A cast of six and, no doubt, a modest production budget is sufficient to give the loyal patrons a good night out.
Camoletti’s other fine stage work, Don’t Dress for Dinner – seen on the Devonshire Park stage only a year ago – is also a farce, but wittier and faster-moving than this one. Boeing Boeing is a bit heavy on dialogue, especially in act one. The frenetic later action is great fun, but based really on a single joke.
Faithful to the original, and authentic in all sorts of details, the production has plenty of merits. The six actors throw themselves into the action with great pace and unflagging energy, but – and this is the issue – they are undermined by dated prejudices and implausible national stereotypes. It verges on a sort of theatre of embarrassment.
We open on a neat set, a kind of Sixties Habitat chic – did Paris have a Habitat outlet back then? Count the ominous seven, yes seven doors and entrances, and you can guess where we are headed. Parisian roué Bernard has, not a girl in every port but a stewardess arriving from every airport. Alitalia, TWA, Lufthansa – he happily hosts them all, as long as they don’t know about each other…
His best friend Robert is engagingly played by Phil Stewart: a gauche, endearing country cousin up from Aix in deepest Provence, swept off his feet – in every sense – by one of the hostesses, Polly Smith’s formidable Gretchen.
If Gretchen is a bit of a Brunhilde, Bernard is no Don Juan. The role, as writ, lacks any magnetism. He is simply managing his little harem on the basis of a cluttered appointments diary. Alan Drake does his best to bring sparkle and romance but the script – unimaginatively translated from the original French – is just too dumpy.
Winging in on TWA, Polly Lister is a credible Mid-West Gloria, while Katy Dean’s Gabriella does fly the Alitalia flag very vivaciously. And Rebecca Wheatley, as the clumpy maid with a world-weary realism, brings an interesting bit of genuine social comment.
There are laughs aplenty as Bernard’s dangerous liaisons tangle him inextricably, with girlfriends arriving unannounced, and bedroom doors opened and slammed shut at bewildering speed. But none of the expert timing, the frantic business never knowingly underplayed, or the good-natured humour can quite disguise the dated feel of this piece.
With nice attention to detail, the production team have come up with authentic period flight bags for all three airlines. But TWA and Alitalia have long since collapsed, and Boeing itself has gone bust. Ladies and gentlemen, this is your final call for Lufthansa Flight LH321 to Paris…
Performances are at 7.45pm with Wednesday and Saturday matinee at 2.30pm. Tickets cost £16 with concessions available. To book, call 01323 412000 or go to www.eastbournetheatres.co.uk.