Boeing Boeing deserves a place in the canon for being such a crowd pleaser. It’s a very difficult thing to make hard-nosed Singaporeans laugh, but W!LD RICE makes it all seem so effortless.
The play is an apt choice for commemorating the tenth anniversary of one of the leading players in the local theatre scene today. As a contemporary world classic adapted for a Singaporean context, the delightful comedy bears the signature of a company which has made a name out of its many adaptations. The result is often refreshing, reminding us not only of the timeless appeal of the classics, but also of the need to constantly revisit, reinterpret and rejuvenate this canon.
Written in the tradition of French “bedroom” farce by Marc Camoletti, Boeing Boeing is the longest running comedy in the history of French theatre. In the play, successful bachelor lothario, Bernard juggles three flight stewardess fiancées through a meticulously devised timetable of their flights, ensuring that they never meet. His little harem however faces a crisis when the introduction of a faster Boeing jet and other unforeseen circumstances jam up his clockwork affairs. Lending him a helping hand are his indefatigable housekeeper, Roza and visiting friend, Robert. But none of them can keep up when the technical romance turns animal…
The adaptation directed by Glen Goei, based on the English version written by Beverley Cross, was a big hit back in 2002. Much of the success is due to the cleverness that went into tailoring the classic to the right Singaporean context. Notably, the three pivotal ladies have been reinvented as stewardesses coming from Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines as well as our very own Singapore Airlines. In the 2010 restaging, Goei builds on this winning formula, delivering top rate entertainment driven by excellent writing, impressive performance chemistry and high production values. This is comedy in its most unadulterated form – a deft blend of farce, wit, mischief, tenderness and charm.
In fact, I think Boeing Boeing offers a brilliant masterclass on two of the most flimsy feats local theatre tries to pull off – comedy and adaptation. For the former, the play teaches us that pure outrageousness does not make comedy. The most uproariously funny things in comedy are really the result of a series of calculated moves, put together in the most effortless manner possible. So much of the farce in the play would have been lost without the sharp blocking, precise timing, quick dialogue and perhaps most importantly, the agility and natural charm of the performers.
Much credit goes to the near-perfect cast, who completely bring their characters to life. Adrian Pang, particularly, appears to be made for the role of Bernard. He never hits a wrong note as the besieged polygamist whose roguish smirk scrunches into a grimace when his fiancées start arriving at the most god forbidden times. The best thing about Pang is the snappiness and versatility of his expressions. In one moment, he is behind his fiancée’s back, frantically gesticulating to Roza in an attempt to collude and explain away the latest evidence of his crimes; and in the next, he immediately straightens up to resume the persona of dependable husband-to-be when his fiancée turns to look at him.
The three ladies playing the stewardesses also shine with their over-the-top mannerisms and killer accents. Chermaine Ang is hilarious as Janette, the loud-mouthed and shamelessly salacious ah lian while Wendy Kweh steals the scene as Jelly (yes, Jelly) with her feisty tai-tai manners and crazily exaggerated Hong Kong accent. It’s a tough fight, but among the three, I enjoyed Emma Yong’s endearing Junko the best. Yong is simply luminous as the Japanese stewardess who vacillates between coy submissiveness and flighty friskiness. Siti Khalijah’s Roza is also a joy to watch and easily the character who is best able to enlist our sympathies.
Daniel York is mostly competent as Robert, the bumbling but trusty sidekick, but he lacks Pang’s agility and momentum to handle extended sequences of high physical comedy.
Combine these top-notch performances with Goei’s tight direction and you have a farcical comedy that works tremendously well. Of course, there are still the occasional bumps along the ride, such as when the characters get so entangled by their witty retorts that the play temporarily loses narrative drive. The ending of the play also feels less than satisfactory. But generally, the rhythm is almost flawless - from the synchronised slamming of the doors to the brisk delivery of pithy witticisms.
Boeing Boeing also demonstrates how to modernise and localise a world classic without making things appear all cheesed and dumbed down. In other plays, the bringing in of our chwee kuehs and chai tau kuehs often appears so contrived that we can’t help but cringe at our own provincialism. Such rarely happens in Boeing Boeing.
The key, I think, is consistency. Instead of having the references slotted in like tokens, we see them peppered delicately throughout the play. There is hardly a moment when we lose awareness of the present-day Singaporean context, thanks to the little reminders such as the references to the Orchard Road floods and the flight-delaying volcanic ash cloud. The incessant invocation of the numerous familiar ethnic-cultural tropes also tickles and reminds us that we are sharing the life of an upper class, cosmopolitan Singaporean.
Kudos also to Ken-hin Teo’s gorgeous set design which melds the chic and the classical, resembling a really grand and sleek airplane cabin fit for a king, or in short, an Imperial Harem on a Boeing. Frederick Lee’s tasteful and inspired costumes also succinctly express the personality of each character.
Evidently, this is a work that is well-equipped to take flight as one of the year’s best comedies.
Boeing Boeing is currently running at the Drama Centre Theatre from 4 August to 4 September 2010. An edited version of this essay has also been published on The Online Citizen.