I arrived at Royal and Derngate for the latest Made In Northampton touring production knowing little about what was in store for me with the first ever theatrical version of Jacques Tati’s Playtime.
The French master of visual comedy’s tale of a man finding his way through a bewildering modern Paris (made in 1967) is rated an all time classic comedy by the BFI.
I haven’t seen it so Dancing Brick, the theatre company which has put this together under the direction of cast member Valentina Ceschi and writer Thomas Eccleshare, had a real job on their hands with me.
Monsieur Hulot is the central character (played by Enoch Lwanga) and the evening begins with him engaging the audience with a little bit of wordless balloon tomfoolery.
Lwanga has a mystic teddy-bear type of charm and is not really the butt of the joke in the way Mr Bean would be if that was what we were watching. He felt more like a Chaplinesque hero as his touching love story with Yuyu Rau’s wide eyed tourist played out.
After our balloon moment with Hulot, a bustling atomic age Paris hoves into view with a long, dazzling section amid the comings and goings of a busy international airport.
Lwanga and Rau are joined by Ceschi, Martin Bassindale and Abigail Dooley and cleverly populate the stage with nuns, sportsmen, pilots, tourists and musicians who will reappear in the story later.
A combination of lightning quick costume changes and deft physical acting described these characters brilliantly and to be honest, my strongest reaction was awe at the abilities of the cast rather than chuckles at the gentle mocking humour of the portrayals.
Ceschi and Bassindale generated a lot of laughter, occasionally with knowing references to the seemingly impossible task of playing so many roles almost simultaneously.
The brilliance of this is almost the production’s biggest problem. You’re so impressed you forget to laugh and I wonder whether, as the production goes on and inevitably gets tighter, this problem might just go away by itself.
We are used to watching this kind of humour on screens. In theatres we get wry wit, funny lines and cheesy lines and we understand when it is ok to laugh because there are punchlines and pay-offs.
When you have a production that is recreating visual humour from movies and is built from impressive execution of performance skills it is less clear but no less enjoyable.
The opening moment with Hulot would be a good opportunity to let the audience know it is ok to laugh – perhaps almost bully them into it – with whatever Lwanga can come up with using a couple of balloons.
Playtime is packed with the kind of visual trickery that in small doses might be your favourite part of any other show. The pace is relentless and there must be an enormous number of marks that must be hit at the just the right moment. The achievement of putting it together as a live performance with a cast of five probably exceeds the achievement of making it as a piece of cinema.
The set is ingenious and beautifully evocative of 60s modernist chic, a palate of pastels and gleaming white in which Hulot’s raincoated tweediness is an appropriate contrast.
Playtime is a very clever piece of work and something quite different for theatre audiences. For me the humour was not so much about belly-laughs as it was about warm smiles, and my guess is you’ll say two “wows” for every “ha ha ha” that comes out of you when you go and see it.
Pictures by Manuel Harlan