I hope the return of 'Boeing, Boeing' isn't a harbinger of farce making a determined comeback. The possibility that a Brian Rix look-alike might be losing his trousers on numerous West End stages sends a chilling shiver down the spine, even though Mark Rylance has all the qualities which might make him number one on the list of likely candidates.
Thankfully, no-one actually loses their trousers in 'Boeing, Boeing' but one feels someone might have thought about it along the way. Good sense obviously prevailed. In almost every other respect, this is farce writ pretty large and more or less in accordance with the basic recipe of the genre. Farce is comedy based on highly unlikely (though just about plausible) scenarios, served up with heavy doses of physical humour, huge dollops of sexual innuendo, and a racing plot that usually picks up speed to a frantic crescendo towards the end. And the set often requires numerous doors or entrances, allowing characters to miss out on some essential events, keeping them in the dark and increasing the laughter-value. The central character - Brian Rix in many of his Whitehall farces during the 50's and 60's – eventually gets himself into a ludicrous and seemingly inescapable situation, but usually everything works out alright in the end. And that, in more or less of a nutshell, is what happens in Marc Camoletti's 'Boeing, Boeing'.
Paris is the urban departure lounge, and Bernard is the principal character in a cast of 6. A comfortably off architect, Bernard has a penchant for variety in sexual partners, and has latched on to a means of having several girlfriends without arousing the hostility of any of them, by keeping them apart. He's achieved this by dating (and getting engaged to) three airline stewardesses (I use the 60's term for them, rather than the modern 'Flight attendant') who work for different airlines and thus fly into and out of his life at suitably irregular intervals. All Bernard has to do is keep an eye on the schedules and, assisted by his reluctant French maid, change the photos in his bedroom and adjust the day's cuisine to accommodate whichever stewardess is flying in that day.
Of course, you should easily be able to see where this flight of fancy is heading, because catastrophe now has to strike. So, the schedules that Bernard assiduously follows begin to fall apart - girls fly in at the wrong time thanks to innovations in aviation technology, storms and the like. Thus, they are no longer kept apart, but touch down in Bernard's plush arrivals lounge at more or less the same time.
It's really the arrival of Bernard's old school chum - a kind of 60's anorak from the provinces - which sparks off the problems. Just as Bernard finishes crowing to his pal about the bliss of his romantic life (which, as Joe Orton once remarked, 'runs to a timetable no member of the royal family would tolerate') everything starts to implode.
Mark Rylance plays the nerdy school chum who's initially shocked to his bumpkin boots when Bernard reveals the true nature of his romances. Rylance is at first a dithering, nervous, yokel whose timidity soon begins to dissipate once he's got the hang of the situation, and ably rallies to the call when he has to cover up for his friend.
Roger Allam plays Bernard with relaxed charm and casual finesse, that is until his world starts to crumble. But it's Frances De La Tour's maid, Bertha, who's the real jewel in this show. Played with a dour and surly expression, a viper's tongue and a slightly lumbering, deliberate gait, she's a maid who's afraid of nothing and no-one. De La Tour's timing is simply perfection, but she's helped with some fine one-liners from Beverley Cross's translation, such as 'I'm not here to reform the world' when discussing options for lunch.
Of the air stewardesses, it's Michelle Gomez's Gretchen that gets almost all the laughs. With hilarious pronunciation, eyes that could penetrate lead and a demeanour that would be more at home on the parade ground, she literally had the audience rolling around in delirium.
'Boeing, Boeing' had a lengthy run in the 60's and feels as though it's more or less (intentionally) stuck there, thanks to the overly loud, French 'pop' music played before the show and during the interval. The old style flight bags (which now seem to be back in fashion once again) also put in an appearance and the awfully bright uniforms of the airline stewardesses add to the nauseatingly bright colour scheme - but its pretty much a perfect fit.
I hope from the foregoing you'll have gleaned that farce is not exactly number one on my list of theatrical destinations. On this occasion, I was prepared to doze through the show if required, but it's frankly impossible. Of its kind, 'Boeing, Boeing' is a slightly more sophisticated form of farce (if such a thing is indeed possible). It avoids the trouser-dropping embarrassment of the genre whilst remaining faithful to the essential requirements. But without Frances De La Tour, Mark Rylance and Michelle Gomez, it might not have made the ascent to the dizzyingly humorous altitude it's actually attained.
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for TH EVENING STANDARD says, “Sheer, silly, comic pleasure.” MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, “Loving production, achieves a kind of delirium.” BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, “Refreshingly hilarious.”