Theatre Company: Toads Theatre Company
Cast: Paul Lewis, Andy Bailey, Olivia Vango, Dave Cloherty, Jemma Carlin-Wells, Stephen Perks, Sheila Gilbert
Plot: Two English couples book the same hotel room in Germany, leading to a series of identity mix-ups, affairs and general mayhem.
Theatre to the uninitiated can be either one of two things. Weighty epics, for example Shakespeare, where the language is unintelligible and the drama dark and dreary, or nonsense pantos, aimed at the kids, where bad acting doesn’t just survive; it is celebrated. However, the truth is that theatre is so much more than those two categories. The most wonderful examples of theatre can be found between the two. Weighty drama told in a modern way, opening up to more than stuffy theatre types; comedies that think before they leap. A Bedfull of Foreigners is a good example of the last type. On paper, it is a bawdy comedy, packed with offensive stereotypes, amusing disasters on holidays and the same appeal as a dated Carry On Film. But, truthfully, the play is a bit of a hidden gem.
It’s all down to how director Alan Tanner and the cast perceive the characters. Paul Lewis takes on the tricky main role of Stanley, the head man who decides to take his wife for a holiday in Germany. His character is a bit of an odd one, the kind of leading man where a lack of stage directions or notes on how the original playwright intended the character means that we have probably lost the original Stanley to the annals of time. What we are left with are minimal stage directions and his dialogue, which paints a leading man who is well-meaning and harmless one second, and in the next, happily engaging in romantic liaisons with women who are not his wife. Paul Lewis works through this in the Toads production of this play by making Stanley out to a man who is simply in over his head. Right from the first moment he walks into the set, a single hotel room, and is started upon by the womanising hotel manager and his pessimistic wife, Stanley has no control over the situations he gets into. He is merely the poor sod who is swept along for the ride. Therefore, when he ends up finding himself in a bedroom with half-naked foreign girls, we get this sense that rather than a cheating husband, he merely hasn’t had two seconds to register the situation, before he finds himself in hot water. Paul Lewis works with this fantastically, a natural born comedic actor. Whether it is a panicked expression on his face or an exasperated quote, Lewis is able to squeeze the most out of every joke. His main co-star, Andy Bailey, playing the role of Claude, is also a wonderfully devised character. Bailey gives his Claude an English stereotype (perhaps helping water down the potentially risqué caricatures of other nationalities), bumbling, awkward and reserved. However, while we have usually associated these traits with the English gentlemen or romantic lead, Bailey uses these personality beats on his role of the bad guy. Claude is the other husband who ends up in the same room, whose stammering Englishness hides a selfish, hypocritical man. It keeps the performance interesting, as Claude descends into a spoilt man-child, who is no longer getting his way. Andy Bailey throws his character into this boiling pot of a situation and lets the performance grow from the chaos. The supporting men are equally strong, Dave Cloherty diving into the role of the eccentric German manager who doesn’t necessarily want the job and is constantly distracted by his own sense of whimsy. Cloherty throws everything into the role, from opera-singing to wielding a dangerous weapon. You have no idea what the character is going to do next. Meanwhile Stephen Perks surprises with the smallest character, but the power to steal the biggest laughs, cropping up seemingly to fuel the comedy when it is beginning to fade. The men are gifted with the best of the script. It could be argued that the women have to work even harder to land their performances, because the play doesn’t really do anything with their characters beside keep them in stereotype territory. Sheila Gilbert struggles with the wife character, mainly because Brenda is written out of the story for a good two thirds of the narrative, meaning she never gets a chance to try anything interesting. Olivia Vango is constantly fighting to make her wife character more than a snobbish German woman. Thankfully, she is given the space to pull the character back from the brink of stereotype, the kind of character you pray makes it out of the play with her sanity intact. Jemma Carlin-Wells too, works with the “sexy girl” character, a stereotype usually devoid of any writing talent whatsoever. Carlin-Wells adds bite to the role, making it clear that Simone is more than a French cabaret dancer, but a crafty vixen determined to get her own way.
With the cast rounded up, it is merely a case of Alan Tanner letting the play do the talking for him. He aids his talented cast into landing every joke that the script throws out at us. And despite the premise of foreign stereotypes and raunchy jokes, there is taste to Bedfull of Foreigners that perhaps goes unnoticed in the marketing campaign. The fun is in the slow-burning nature of some of the jokes. Writer Dave Freeman makes sure that while the light-hearted build-up to the play focuses on the snarky remarks and one-liners, he is also peppering openers to later, bigger gags. A clunky radiator is placed into the plot to hit home in the closing beats of Act One. A nun’s outfit looks harmless enough, but goes on to steal the biggest laugh of the play. Lines are repeated in the final act with bigger emphasis, snowball gags that get louder audience reactions with every mention. You laugh far more than you expect to with the premise here. While most plays work on those few big laughs, Bedfull is a play that is constantly finding new and inventive ways to keep the audience entertained. There is more than one style of humour at play, so as well as the slapstick blowing up of stuff, there is witty banter and innuendo. There is not a moment that goes by, where a smile isn’t plastered on your face. The womanising is also less severe as the play hints. While a large point of this play is Stanley helplessly getting confronted with women in corsets and lingerie, the sexuality is less raunchy and more tasteful. There’s a pleasant restraint to the sex gags that means that when Tanner wishes to make us gasp with shock, he has the power to do so. But again, Bedfull of Foreigners surprises, because it is a play that is more than the sexist jokes and the poking fun at foreign accents… it is a mayhem comedy about a holiday that simply goes wrong. He should have gone to Blackpool, after all.
Final Verdict: It could have been a train-wreck, but Alan Tanner steers his play with precision, creating a laugh-out loud piece of theatre