Frances de la Tour
About halfway through Boeing Boeing Matthew Warchus’ revival of the farce, which in the 1960s ran for more than 2,000 performances I started to gaze at the audience. A florid gentleman two rows ahead was laughing so hard I feared for his heart, the taciturn Europeans beside me were clasping their ribs, and an elegant lady was spraying her interval gin-and-tonic over her neighbours. I on the other hand, though pleasantly diverted, only found myself gently and intermittently chuckling.
I’m still puzzling over what elusive ingredient was missing from this impressive production. Bernard, an attractively ageing architect, has the great good fortune to live a mere windsock away from Orly Airport, Paris, from whence come a stream of filly-legged air stewardesses, three of whom believe themselves to be Bernard’s only fiance. By cunning exploitation of the flight timetables, and with the reluctant assistance of his maid (played by the great Frances de la Tour), he entertains his exquisite fiances in his charming flat, each blithely ignorant that the moment they take off, an equally delectable stewardess touches down. That is until the invention of the ‘Super Boeing’, with its startlingly fast flights, and the arrival from the country of Bernard’s old friend Robert.
As is to be expected, much hilarity ensues, with many a double-take, and many a whirling disappearance through one door and appearance through another. The physical comedy is remarkably well choreographed, with such precise timing I wouldn’t have been in the least surprised to spot a conductor in the pit. Roger Allam’s performance, as Bernard, dives splendidly from such dizzy heights of sexual gratification that he can barely refrain from dancing to comically impotent despair, and Tamzin Outhwaite manages to throw off the shackles of Albert Square and convince as the brassy American stewardess Gloria.
Frances de la Tour’s magisterial stage presence is transformed into a sort of slow-moving lugubrious resentment that’s a perfect foil to the frantic capering of the rest of the cast. And Daisy Beaumont and Michelle Gomez as the Italian and German stewardesses respectively were no less effective at carrying the comedy, with Gomez in particular chomping at the scenery as if she’d not eaten for a week.
These all were worthy of their applause, but, oh, Mark Rylance: the marshmallow in my Wagon Wheel, the fizz in my champagne! At his appearance perhaps a quarter of an hour into the play, lurking uncertainly in the doorway beneath an apparently heavy hat and clasping his briefcase, something happened. It’s all part of theatre’s gorgeous alchemy, this curious effect: one actor, by dint of occupying his role so thoroughly it’s impossible to imagine him doing anything else, somehow glorifies the rest. Rylance’s Robert, the good-hearted country boob who’s never been kissed, registers his amazement with an incredulous eyebrow and a mouth opened in wonder and dismay. His desperate attempts to prevent his friend falling foul of the flight schedules are enacted with such whole-hearted dedication that he literally flings himself about the apartment, all the while making frantically silent gestures of caution.
All this, and yet it wasn’t quite enough. Perhaps I baulked at the play’s dusty old premise women, the little dears, they never know when they’re being taken for a flight! and certainly it could never have been written after the 1960s so celebrated by Larkin. But I think it’s more profound than this. There’s something strangely deep-seated and collective about comedy, and Boeing Boeing though wonderfully translated is quite simply too foreign.
Comedy and farce are at their most successful when they strike off something we recognise with a thrill of glee, which is why we cherish our stock characters, however cunningly disguised. Boeing-Boeing, somewhat in the European tradition of the Commedia del’Arte (with Robert the perfect childlike Pedrolino, embroiled in his master’s intrigues), somehow lacked the sense of the familiar that underpins, say, Captain Mainwaring’s pompous bank-manager, or Monty Python’s apronned housewives. Certainly the audience laughed most heartily where the comedy came closest to the British soul, with jokes about shouting Germans, and men in women’s knickers.
For all that, only a poltroon would miss an opportunity to see Mark Rylance deliver so consummate a performance: I predict a sell-out.