By Michael Gluckstadt
Sexist? A little bit. Mindless? Probably. Fun? Absolutely. Matthew Warchus’ revival of the French farce “Boeing Boeing” on London’s West End had me laughing uncontrollably in spite of myself. In this chic reconstruction of the literally swinging sixties, every member of the cast gives an absolutely exuberant performance. Their good-nature is contagious, as the audience is easily swept up by the actors’ knack for physical comedy and the nonstop laughs of Marc Camoletti’s script.
The premise is remarkably simple. Bernard (Kevin R. McNally) is a Parisian architect with a revolving door of three fiancées in his life who are all airline stewardesses. With an eye on the airlines’ flight timetables and help from his sassy New Yorker maid (a pitch-perfect Rhea Perlman in a supporting role), Bernard has made sure that his three women— one American, one Italian, and one oh-so-German— would never meet. The day he is visited by his hapless friend Robert (Neil Stuke, who even sweats in character) is the same day his girls’ schedules get a little too close for comfort.
Most of the comedy in the play comes from the desperate attempts of the characters in the know to keep the others from finding out. I suppose that would make it a one-joke play, but the rollicking enthusiasm the actors bring to the table keeps it fresh.
And then there are the girls. Not really given much as characters, they inhabit their stereotypes deliciously. There is Gloria, the American TWA stewardess who would be wonderful if she came with a mute button. Played by Amy Nuttall, she is very pleasing to look at, but her incessant baby-talking babble borders on unbearable. I thought Americans were being depicted too harshly— that is until the introduction of Gretchen, the Lufthansa stewardess. If there is one joke that has never gotten old in England, it’s mocking the Germans. A giant of a woman, Gretchen (Doon Mackichan) stomps around the stage with a great sense of purpose and bravely delivers lines like “Sauerkraut is an OUTSTANDING DISH!” Mackichan is a gifted physical actress, and she steals the show from the other, punier actors, at one point unexpectedly lifting Rhea Pearlman into the air. Elena Roger makes for a likable and passionate Gabrielle, the Alitalia stewardess, and more than holds her own in the face of all of the play’s other outsized personas.
With all the action it’s a wonder the play doesn’t spin out of control. But unlike Bernard’s idea of “perpetual motion,” Warchus’s is meticulously planned. The play is anchored in Rob Howell’s brilliant set design. A circular living room with doors on all sides, the set focuses the action in the center while providing ample room for the theatrics that occur onstage and off in the side rooms. The look is just right, with a plush carpet, angular telephone, and white sofas that evoke a time when the idea of having three fiancées wasn’t just inoffensive, it was downright hilarious.