You can’t beat sitting in the dark in a small (but beautifully formed!) space with ninety-nine other people, only some of whom are known to you, for nearly two hours sniggering and laughing uproariously at a hiding the sausage joke. That’s what I found myself doing on Monday night at the first performance of The Wharf Theatre’s production of ‘Allo ‘Allo!, and it was brilliant. For those not in the know about ‘Allo ‘Allo!, it’s a parody of Secret Army (1977 – 1979), a BBC drama series about the resistance movement’s efforts to help Allied airmen evade capture and escape from German occupied Belgium in WW2 under the noses of various Germans and spies.
The stage play by Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft is based on the popular television comedy, originally broadcast on BBC1, which, following the pilot episode in December 1982, ran for nine seasons from 1984 to 1992 with retrospective episodes in 1994 and 2007.In the stage play, as in the series, the action takes place in a café in occupied France, run by René (originally played by Gordon Kaye), his long-suffering wife Edith, and his lovers, waitresses Mimi and Yvette. As well as having to deal with the complexities of his clandestine relationships René is looking after a valuable painting (‘The Fallen Madonna with the Big Boobies’) for the corrupt town commandant, hiding two British airmen in the cellar, doing his best to politely resist the advances of an enamoured German officer, and trying to communicate with the resistance without arousing the suspicions of the Gestapo.
Jemma Brown is the show’s director and in the programme describes watching ‘Allo ‘Allo! with her Dad as a child and reading it on Zoom during lockdown, after which she promised to direct it when the dark days of what she describes as ‘The Big Pause’ were over. ‘And here we are!’ she says. I can’t overstate how well I think The Wharf and TITCO (some of the members of which are in this show) have done to keep the arts alive in Devizes over the last couple of years. Both organisations have done their very best to do what they have been allowed to do as safely and as soon as they have been allowed to do it, when sometimes it has seemed like the world has been trying harder to do nothing rather than anything at all.
We need to support the arts in Devizes as a matter of urgency. Shows like this aren’t made with fresh air. This one sold out well before the start of the run, which is no mean feat in this day and age. It seems that ‘Allo ‘Allo! was a great choice in that it occupies a special place in a lot of peoples’ hearts, and that people knew it would be a quality show and well worth going ‘out out’ for. And so it was – a night of fun and laughs, slapstick nonsense, silly words, and shared delight. The only thing that saves ‘Allo, ‘Allo! from crossing a line when it comes to European stereotypes is that it rips the Michael out of absolutely everyone including the British, and what stops it being simply Benny Hill type sexism is that the women are just as hapless and/or empowered as the men, and that a French café in the 1940s is pretty much one of the only places you can get away with the French waitress stereotype.
What fun the cast had with this, and how the audience laughed! Top marks to Sean Andrews in his first non-musical role for his portrayal of the droll and slightly twitchy lothario René, and also to Anthony Brown, also in his first role in a play, who made a brilliant Officer Crabtree. The overdoing of accents is ‘Allo ‘Allo!’s main trick, and it’s Crabtree’s Englishman playing a Frenchman’s accent that is the funniest of all. His ‘Good moaning’ is the most memorable of many catchphrases in this show, and what’s so clever about the part is that in the mixing up of vowels the character takes the lines as far as they can possibly go without being completely unintelligible. Disguises that are no disguise at all are also hilarious in this, it’s all so obvious and in your face – Michelle from the Resistance (played suitably seductively by Lucy Burgess) is referred to as such, and LeClerc’s ridiculous attempts to look like anyone other than LeClerc (‘It is I, LeClerc!’) are simply ludicrous and fool no-one but him. It was LeClerc’s character that made me laugh the most, particularly the bit with the cockatoo, so a big well done to Ian Diddams for that.
The other performance that seemed to me to elicit huge laughs from the audience and was undeniably brilliant was Debby Wilkinson playing Edith playing Fifi doing a superbly awful cabaret. It’s not easy getting things deliberately wrong and Debby did a great job.Apart from the accents and the misguided disguises there was also the slightly dodgy hilarity of the constant verbal and physical sexual innuendo, but ‘lickily’ everyone who came was up for it. Chris Worthy played the pervy and sinister Herr Flick to perfection, and his violin bow erection was particularly enjoyable. Then there was the recurring sausage, of course – now who doesn’t like a recurring sausage? – and the spectacle of René trying to inflate Hitler…‘They wouldn’t make it these days’ said a lady in the row in front of me.
There were many hilarious performances in ‘Allo, ‘Allo!, but to mention all of them would be to write a list. Sarah Davies was very funny as the coy and smitten Helga, Matt Dauncey was characteristically excellent in his role as Alberto, I’m always a big fan of people taking a pop at Nazis, and everyone else was awesome too – but what made this a stand out show is the obvious delight that the cast took in participating, and the way they worked together. Apart from a couple of missed lines it didn’t seem like a first night at all, and it’s hard to see how it could be improved upon. At every point during the show there was something fun to look at, the stage was colourful and interesting, the costumes were great, the cast managed complex movements and comic timing to perfection…
What a treat it was, and how lovely to be ‘out out’ and sharing the fun and guilty pleasure of ‘Allo, ‘Allo! with a packed audience in our beautiful theatre. ‘It’s so brilliant. I did a little weep of pride last night. They are so good.’ (Jemma Brown on the cast, after one of the last rehearsals).And so they were on Monday, and most likely will even more so by Saturday if that were possible. What a wonderful theatre and quality entertainment we have in our town! And how very ‘licky’ we are.
© Gail Foster 16th February 2022