Friday, June 13, 2008

Boeing and Nothingness

Every good film involving a plane includes, at some point, one of the following lines.

“The landing gear is jammed! I don’t know if I can bring this bird down!”


“I’ve never flown a real plane! I’ve only flown the flight simulator on my computer!”


“I’m going to have to go out on the wing and fix it myself. Tell my wife I love her.”

But the best bit – the best – in any plane-centric movie is when someone taps a dial on the dashboard, mutters “that can’t be right”, looks over their shoulder out the cockpit window and then turns to their fellow passengers and says, in a steely and urgent voice:

“We’re losing fuel. Fast. We got a mountain ridge up ahead and a nuclear warhead in the trunk. If we’re gonna make it, we’re gonna have to lighten our load. I want you to throw out everything not nailed down – you got me? Everything! And may God help us all.”

As I reached the one-hour mark of the new show Boeing, Boeing, I found myself in similar circumstances. I started mentally tossing out my concentration, my good taste, my understanding of comic convention and any sensation in the rear compartments. I resisted the temptation to grab my chute and bail, but that may have been due to the incapacitating fear I experienced when I realised that there might well be nobody in the cockpit steering the thing I had found myself aboard.

Bertrand is a ne’er-do-well Parisian with three fiancées. “Qu’est que ce?” vous parlez? Tout juste, Auguste! His thing is to woo airline hostesses, whose international schedules allow him to keep a harem of women who live in his bachelor pad on different days of the week, unaware of each others’ existences. Then his nerdy old buddy Robert turns up, the girls’ outbound flights get cancelled, and we end up with one of those “comedies” where people are running in and out of doors almost but not quite meeting each other and having the confrontation that we’re all waiting for so we can get home for an early bed.

Boeing, Boeing was a movie back in the sixties in the genre known as sex comedies (the film’s tagline really was “The Big Comedy of Nineteen-Sexty-Sex!”). We don’t really get them anymore, since you can actually have sex movies these days rather than fumbling around the issue by padding it up as a goofy laff-fest that manages to not mention sex in inventive ways. The better sex comedies featured Doris Day and Rock Hudson, and usually had Tony Randall hamming it up in there somewhere. Sometimes Tony Curtis checked in for the ride. Writing this, I notice that the 50s and 60s sex comedies sure did feature a lot of gay icons of the time. If I remember the great doco The Celluloid Closet at all, some commentators suggest that this is because sex comedies were all about what wasn’t made explicit, the open secrets that anyone in the know could get, but which others would miss entirely. You know, subtexts. The wink at the audience that says “We know how frivolous this looks, but we know you get what we’re really saying, right?”

The new Boeing, Boeing actually doesn’t get that. There’s no irony to it, no camping it up. Because sex is out there on billboards and prime time TV, there’s no need to deliver it in veiled forms. The play is just a straight (in every sense) rendering of the original play, but given the naughties context it actually ends up seeming like some kind of nostalgic elegy for a period when Carry On and Benny Hill were considered risqué. When sex wasn’t talked about, since it certainly isn’t talked about here. Instead we have a fairly pungent image of a sleazy dude leading along three women for whom “nationality” substitutes for “character”. There’s the American, the Italian and the German. They have names, too, but that’s kind of beside the point.

The cast really give it all they’ve got here, and in some cases that’s a lot. When Sybilla Budd turns up about two years into the show as the fiery German Gertrude, she brings the house down with the kind of performance you wish had been available earlier in the piece. Sadly, with a script so dated and a production so muted, that just wasn’t possible. Shaun Micallef makes an effort to get into his character but seems a bit removed from it all, and Mitchell Butel as Robert mugs his way through Rowan Atkinson’s back-catalogue but can’t transcend the limitations of a character that seems nothing more than a collection of comic asides. I couldn't help but feel that some of the cast were here as the result of losing a bad bet.

I really thought that Boeing, Boeing could have had legs. That it could have taken its source material and had fun with it, playing on the now-painful sexual mores of the 60s while acknowledging the distance between its origins and ourselves. And there should have been some gorgeous design from the era, rather than a cold beige set and unchanging lighting we’re left with.

I’m not sure why you would stage a play with a title that’s so dangerously close to “Boring, Boring”.

At least we didn’t see “Booing, Booing”.

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