David Croft and Jeremy Lloyd's wartime farce 'verges on the anarchic', but provides Showcase Productions NI the opportunity to blood new talent
I remember ‘Allo ‘Allo from my childhood, as I’m sure many TV addicts do if they were raised in an age when they were trapped by access to a mere four channels. It was broadcast on BBC One over ten years, from 1982 to 1992 – a whole seven years longer than the Nazi occupation of France, during which period it is set.
'Allo 'Allo was created by David Croft and Jeremy Lloyd who, together or separately, also produced Dad’s Army, Hi-De-Hi and Are You Being Served?. These were some of the most popular sitcoms in post-war British comedy, defining the form for a generation. Much like other cornerstones of the era, however, such as the the Carry On series, for example, they have not aged so gracefully.
This stage version was also written by Croft and Lloyd, and was performed by the cast of the original television series over a number of years after the show was cancelled. The plot condenses some of the more salient points of the show, which viewers may or may not recall.
Essentially Rene Artois, a bar owner in the French town of Nouvion, is caught at the centre of a web of intrigue and suspicion spun around a plundered painting, the ‘Fallen Madonna with the Big Boobies’, which he has hidden in a sausage in his kitchen. In addition to this, Artois is concealing a pair of British airmen in his basement.
In true farcical style, Artois attempts to keep everyone happy – the Resistance, the occupying Nazis, the Gestapo – while also keeping his affairs with his two waitresses from each other and from his wife, the sharp-tongued Edith.
Artois's struggles make for lots of to-ing and fro-ing, many mix-ups and misunderstandings. 'Allo 'Allo the stage version, therefore, is a quintessential British farce with lots of laughs and plenty of innuendo thrown in for good measure.
This current version is being staged by Showcase Productions NI, a cross-community organisation that has been touring for over a dozen years. They previously produced musical projects exclusively, such as the much-loved Blood Brothers, but have been branching out in recent years to non-musical projects such as this.
Aside from a couple of old hands in the main roles, the cast is entirely populated by newcomers or novices. The performances are, in the main, strong and energetic. Those with less experience occasionally lack projection and confidence. No doubt further performances will smooth these issues out.
The staging is simple but effective, ensuring that the pace only flags in the second half. The whirlwind script demands so many transitions between rooms, basements and boudoirs that momentum in the individual scenes is inevitably lost during the numerous set changes.
My only real, lasting gripe with the show is with the script. As mentioned, the tropes of the show have not aged well. This style of comedy verges on the archaic, which can be tiresome, and the unreconstructed attitude (to put it lightly) toward some of the female characters leaves a particularly sour taste in the mouth.
During this performance in Downpatrick’s Down Arts Centre, the older crowd don’t seem to have any such qualms with the content, so it’s possible that my concerns could be ascribed to generational differences. Not that I don't laugh in certain parts – Croft and Lloyd were great comedy writers, after all.
Despite such qualms, the actors, experienced and otherwise, acquit themselves well, which is satisfying to see. When smaller venues like the Down Arts Centre are having to compete with larger venues in nearby cities – and their glitzy international productions – surely giving young actors the opportunity to gain experience in front of a paying audience is to be lauded.
'Allo 'Allo visits Iveagh Movie Studios, Banbridge on February 28, Waterside Theatre, Derry~Londonderry on April 5, Braid Arts Centre, Ballymena on April 6, Riverside Theatre, Coleraine on May 18 and Courtyard Theatre, Ballyearl on July 5-6.