“What a hotel!” “What a night!” The closing line is the glorious cherry on top of this titillating night at the theatre. I entered this production not knowing anything about the play, and indeed a little apprehensive about “French theatre”. To me, “French theatre” had always been absurd and, I’m afraid to admit, such hard work to watch (although in most cases extremely rewarding). What a joy it was to discover that Hotel Paradiso was neither absurd nor taxing, but instead a Wilde-style French farce of tremendously comic proportions.
Act I sets the groundwork for two intimate rendezvous along with another two main characters (one with four daughters) seeking alternative accommodation for the night. This brings us to the Hotel Paradiso in Act II, where in true farcical fashion hopes are built up, plans are foiled, and the law comes crashing in! Act III is a hazy and exhausting post-mortem where everyone wins.
Pat Wallace’s treatment of Hotel Paradiso, with the assistance of Drew Mason, is impeccable, thorough, and stylistically light and frothy. The play bubbles along with ever-increasing heat and engaging momentum, with moments of shade allowed for the perfectly timed “asides”. Never have I seen the “aside” used so liberally and aptly in a production. The absence of the fourth wall allows the audience to be included in the thoughts and conversations of the characters. This playwriting tool is a clever and often tricky device that requires exceptional sensitivity and confidence from the actors to make it work.
The opening scene is set in the home of Monsieur Boniface who greets the audience directly. Alex Lanham’s exceptional characterisation is arrogant, sarcastic, and flippant, but overall, quite sexy and appealing! (I’m sure he could charm the pants off many a girl!) How could anyone forget that that moment of tenderness when he asks his love to call him “… Benedict!”
Adrienne Morgan’s Madame Boniface is aptly sour-faced and hard. Regrettably, many of her funny lines (all “asides”) are simply thrown away with her inability to break the stony demeanour. In Act III we would have welcomed some funny comebacks from the severe Madame Boniface.
Complementing the Bonifaces are their friends and neighbours the Cots. Madame Cot (played by Samantha Rice) is perfectly cast as the beautiful and sexually undernourished wife. Monsieur Cot (played by Ian Bielenberg) is the bearded “nincompoop” who married merely to escape the pressure to sow his wild oats. Bielenberg’s portrayal of Cot is a little unsure and forced, and only truly shines in Act III, when we finally see this “nincompoop” stumble humorlessly between domestic confusion and self-preservation.
The performances of the supporting cast are ample proof that little roles can make a great impact. Paulene Campton’s portrayal of Victoire the cheeky maid is delightfully brash and always hilarious. The object of Victoire’s affection is the studious philosophy buff Maxime, played by Paul Ballenger. Ballenger creates an almost annoyingly innocent character, who fends off Victoire’s advances with lines such as, “I cannot study passion with a woman next to me”.
The spectrum of accents used throughout Hotel Paradiso convinced me that I was actually watching the “Hotel Euro”. Obviously some of the accent choices were a deliberate decision of the director making do with the talent available and working the anticipated knowledge base of the audience. Would you be able to tell a metropolitan French accent from a country French accent? The range of accents in Act II left me a little dizzy. There was the Irish porter, the (young) Turkish Professor, the Italian (although sometimes a little French) hotel manager, the very British sounding country lawyer, and finally the oh-so-French Antoinette.
As usual, the Arts Theatre comes up a winner with the set, costumes and lighting. Una Hollingworth is to be commended for a set that is spacious and elegant, with subtle touches of Art Nouveau design in the panelling. The hotel set was cosy, seedy and bohemian, and the late 19th century costuming was colourful and most appropriate. The appearance of Mademoiselle Antoinette on the courtyard stairs prior to the show was like looking at a Toulouse Lautrec painting.
On a technical note, the live offstage sound effects used for the “bad weather” on the arrival of Monsieur Martin were absolutely annoying and completely unbelievable. May whoever loaned the crew their biscuit tins get them promptly returned after the show! I am shocked that such close attention was paid to all other elements of production, but this obvious flaw overseen! A sound effects CD would make a worthwhile investment.
The live piano music integrated well with the show. The minor key rendition of “Frére Jacques” which accompanied Monsieur Boniface climbing up the fire escape, through the window and home again at dawn was the absolute epitome of defeat. Mademoiselle Antoinette’s (Carole Ruddy) singing before the show and at the beginning of Act II was delightful, but something of a distraction in its length. A single song in each instance would have more aptly complemented the production. Likewise, the children’s performance of the witches’ song was far too long, in a scene where one verse would have been sufficient to compose the required atmosphere.
But overall this is a highly enjoyable evening at the theatre: a tightly constructed production with flawless timing and lots of big laughs. If you’re a fan of Wilde, Shaw, even Coward or Ayckbourn, you will appreciate the frantic farcical style of Hotel Paradiso.
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