To those who look at the names before the title, the show opening next month at the Comedy seems an appealing prospect: Roger Allam, Mark Rylance, Frances de la Tour. But the punter who would normally be attracted by such distinguished players must feel as if his New Year's hangover has lasted longer than he thought on seeing the title of the piece: Boeing Boeing. Younger readers may ask, What what? but older ones will recall this as a farce that opened in 1962 and, until outrun by No Sex, Please, We're British, held the record for a West End comedy. They may also remember that its plot - or situation - concerns Bernard, who lives near Orly airport, Paris, and has three stewardess girlfriends, each of whom thinks she's the one and only. The complex scheduling that keeps all the balls in the air falls apart on the day that his friend Robert, a shy and slightly goofy provincial, pays a visit to his flat with seven doors, and is unexpectedly thrust into a household saturated with panic and sex.
The idea to revive the French farce was that of the director, Matthew Warchus, who, until producer Sonia Friedman backed him, had encountered only strange looks and wrinkled noses when he mentioned it. "I've never had the chance to do any contemporary farce, and, five years ago, when I came across the film [with Tony Curtis and Jerry Lewis] and found out it had been a play, I was very eager to direct it. There's something very simple and pure about it, almost like Plautus. I think enough time has passed for it to no longer be considered out of date and to move into the genre of a classic."
The critics who watched Patrick Cargill, David Tomlinson (later replaced by Leslie Phillips), and Carole Shelley in the original production would probably have been startled to hear they were in on the birth of a classic. While two broadsheet critics called it "very funny" and a third said it "never fails to please," they all pronounced it flimsy stuff; the London Evening Standard said the "feeble" show "never gets off the ground", the Mail sniffed that it was "dim and antiquated", and author Clancy Sigal, on a temporary reviewing stint, damned it as "hackneyed, vile, vulgar, and unpleasant". But, one of those plays that no one likes except the public, Boeing Boeing ran for more than 2,000 performances. This response was tepid, however, compared with the success Marc Camoletti's farce enjoyed in its native France, where it had opened the year before. Boeing Boeing packed its original theatre until 1980, then moved on and played until 2004. It has been produced in 58 countries. But the comedy did not go over big on Broadway, despite the role of the friend being played by the actor who, at the time, had a lock on this kind of part, Ian Carmichael. Indeed, as a PG Wodehouse character said about a similar venture, it opened and closed so fast it created a suction.
When audiences flocked to Boeing Boeing, England was a different place. Censorship of the theatre was still in force, and offstage, too, the country had more in common with the financially and morally straitened Fifties than with a decade soon to be a synonym for sensual indulgence. When few people had set foot in an airplane, stewardesses were seen as glamorous and sophisticated - playgoers of 1962 no doubt agreed with Bernard that such girls were the crème de la crème because "apart from being beautiful, they have to be healthy, good at cooking, good at nursing, witty, wise and friendly." The girls may be shacking up with Bernard, but this daring behaviour is indulged because each believes she's his fiancée; the sexual turnabout at the end is both logically and emotionally inexplicable to anyone born since the play's premiere. Back then a man of marriageable age who, like Robert, says he doesn't know much about kissing was seen as a figure of affectionate fun, not someone in need of a psychoanalyst.
Since the Sixties there have been broader social changes than those wrought by prosperity and sex. It is no longer possible for decent people to dismiss someone of a different race or gender as not quite real. Part of this is increased worldliness. Women are no longer assumed to be interested only in fashion and babies. Presented with the situation of a man deceiving three women, who today would not think of the cruelty and heartbreak? Who would not regard the maid (Frances de la Tour), who sweeps the possessions of the other two out of sight just before a girl checks in, as a nasty traitor to her sex? (In 1962 she was just a comic servant, laughed at for her ignorance - "You wouldn't get me to live in America," she says. "Not with all those Indians.")
That rhetorical company clearly does not include Friedman, who sees such objections as "boringly pedantic". The mood of the play, she says, will be "Sixties pastiche", recalling the period with a bit of parody. "The casting is mischievous. We've put together three of our great stage actors, who are using a different part of their kit. Mark Rylance is a great comic, but nobody's really seen that side of him outside Shakespeare. And for the stewardesses we've got three well-known TV actresses [Tamzin Outhwaite, Michelle Gomez, and Daisy Beaumont], so we've ticked all the boxes." There still won't be enough, however, for Independent readers, much less writers. "We weren't planning to advertise there - the paper's too intellectual. We'll be looking at the Home Counties." While the premise of Boeing Boeing might seem distasteful, Warchus says that such an interpretation runs counter not only to the spirit but the denouement of the play. "If you look at it from the girls' points of view, all three of them get what they want, and love wins out in the end." He also points out that Bernard's hair's-breadth timing and the devastation caused by a new aircraft that speeds up the flights are actually more relevant today than they were in 1962. "The audience has got to feel the pressure the characters are under, with everything getting faster and faster. I think they'll identify with that. We all keep trying to cram more and more things into the same number of hours. Sex is the MacGuffin here. The play is really about someone believing he can control everything."
There will be a few changes from Beverley Cross's English version. "We're going back to the French original," Warchus says, "and putting back a few direct sexual references." The line about Indians has bitten the dust, and so have two lines about Bernard's having "the advantages of a harem... without any of the fuss of becoming a Mohammedan."
Though a great many subjects considered shocking in 1962 would now pass without a murmur, there are some, innocuous then, that West End producers don't dare joke about now.
'Boeing Boeing' starts at The Comedy Theatre, London, on 3 FebruaryReuse content