I’m informed ‘Allo ‘Allo is one of those enduring BBC comedies from the 1980s. Not being around when the show first aired, I was rather tentative about reviewing a play based on such an iconic series, but this adaptation from original screenwriters Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft, performed by South Brisbane’s Villanova Players at St Laurence’s College, is easily enough for the uninitiated to follow.
‘Allo ‘Allo is set in and around the Café René in Nouvion, France, during World War II. The cafe is a popular meeting place owned by the irrepressible René (David Jones) and his long-suffering wife Edith (Pat Wockner). Local German commandant Colonel Von Strohm (Bruce Stanley) and Italian counterpart Captain Alberto Bertorelli (Terry Wockner) keep a close eye on things while waitresses Mimi (Jane Binstead) and Yvette (Samantha Tierney) sex it up (for René and just about anyone else it seems).
Otto Flick (Leo Bradley) and Helga (Emma Powell) are courting German soldiers and Lieutenant Gruber’s (Robert Getton) unrequited feelings are just another harassment for the ever-stressed René. All are on their best behaviour for Hitler Henchman General Von Schmelling (Brian Cannon), who’s anxious to please the Fuhrer during his planned blink-and-you’ll-miss-it stop in town. Throw in the French Underground, who prowl about in the most suspicious disguises with the latest news from London, and English agent Crabtree (Patrick Mullins) whose French accent is so horrendous his pronunciations are forever off-kilter, and you get a gist of the dynamic of the cast.
To cut a long story short, the Gestapo are hot on the trail of the English Airmen hidden in René’s basement and there just happens to be an invaluable piece of artwork stuffed in a sausage in the larder that everyone wants to get their hands on. Potential theatre goers be warned: this is a play of exploding Edam cheeses, detonator cigars and talking parrots. Fans of the series, and those who enjoy their theatre brimming with high farce and high camp will, I suspect, find much to like. The success of the production relies on continuous physical comedy, which, for the most part, the cast delivers.
Jones makes a charming, affable lead. René is an adulterer, a liar, and a coward, but it’s all forgiven rather quickly by the audience because he’s so uproariously funny. Jones does anchor the show, and his performance is one of conviction and measured comic timing. My viewing partner and I concluded that Jones’ characterisation borrows much from the iconic BBC Fawlty Towers series, but then again, John Clease’s simpering, misanthropic Basil is something of comedic folklore (and perhaps patron saint for many hoteliers) and any allusion is welcome when it’s as deftly handled as it is by Jones.
Certainly, René wears many hats: not only is he the much maligned owner of the eponymous café in which the play is set, he is also part-time narrator, using “freeze frames” periodically to ensure the audience is aware of exactly what is going on. This function proves timely and useful; the rabbit-warren of a plot snakes and curves in so many directions the audience does have trouble making head or tale of it at times.
Pat Wockner does a fair job capturing the acerbic Edith, but her delivery at times lacks the oomph required to set the character in full flight. She clearly relishes the part, however, especially capturing Edith’s spurned cabaret aspirations, and as Edith is no Liza, Wockner’s singing is both excruciating and hilarious.
The German and Italian characters are handled well. Terry Wockner makes an amorous and excited Captain Bertorelli and Stanley is solid as the self-conscious and smug Von Strohm. That withstanding, accents throughout the production are a problem. Most characters lapse from them (and hence their characterisation) momentarily at some point or another. On this front, Bradley and Powell stand out for their sustained, impressive characterisation and their unfaltering German accents.
Director Leo Wockner extracts much humour from the script in his staging. However he needs to watch that the occasional punch line isn’t lost into the wings due to blocking problems. This is not to denounce the deliberate off-stage antics, which are effective throughout to channel the maelstrom of action in front of, across and around the stage.
. The use of a spotlight to denote alternative locations without changing the set is a clever, practical and inexpensive idea. Minor physical set changes however (performed by the cast) occur too frequently and are far too cumbersome. By no means do the Villanova players present a mediocre production, but at key moments, the conviction required to buoy the play is lacking. The ending, particularly, needs to be workshopped with closer attention to ensure it is not anticlimactic.
By and large, design elements of the show are commendable. The costuming by Colleen Lock and Carla Muir is both appropriately designed and effective, while the pre-show music by a roving accordion player (Rod Thompson) and the ushering by cast members establish the atmosphere early. Mention must also be made of the many props which populate the show, all of which are used to their optimum effect.
It should be mentioned much of the humour in ‘Allo ‘Allo is rather on the adult side, but the double entendres work effectively, assuring any younger audience members will be able to enjoy the surface humour on its own merits.
The Villanova Players are certainly an enthusiastic ensemble, but I sense enthusiasm alone doesn’t do complete justice to this inherently hilarious script. But the healthy opening-night audience obviously enjoyed themselves, and so did I. ‘Allo ‘Allo, while a good production, currently lacks the verve and cohesion to be a great one. With tighter workshopping of key scenes and more appropriate set changes, this production could very well be side-splittingly good.