Arriving early for my first visit to Wimborne ensured I was at the charming Tivoli Theatre in plenty of time for the Bank Holiday Saturday matinée of Project Play’s ‘Allo ‘Allo, with time enough (as planned) for lunch first in a local café; what wasn’t planned was the live outdoor musical entertainment in the nearby Square, but the ambience it created (including an appropriate accordion accompaniment) set up the tone well for an afternoon of entertainment at René’s café. Although the pre-show singing was far more melodious than Madame Edith’s subsequent cabaret, there were enough comical highlights to be found at Café René to make the trip from Hampshire worthwhile!
The programme notes refer to this staging as a project rather than as a production – and it seems appropriate at this point to explain a little more about the ‘company’. Project Play is the brainchild of Show Producer, Matthew Rock; it is a collective of people passionate about theatre, whether acting or part of the production process, and is a voluntary community initiative (no joining fees or membership per se) that raises money for charities as well as encouraging and developing local talent in the process of putting on shows for a public audience. In only its second staged play, Project Play’s ‘Allo ‘Allo has been performed in three different venues (Yeovil, Frome and now Wimborne) by three entirely separate, yet collaborative, casts/production teams/crews for each venue, all under Rock’s watchful eye. This excellent example of community theatre should be applauded and promoted, although it does raise the risk of a great variety in performance capability in the final phase based as much on experience as talent, as seen here (although all cast members had their moments where they shone), but the potential development for all at each various level is evident and should be encouraged.
From the moment the curtain opened (following a pre-recorded personal message from original Yvette, Vicki Michelle), the set (capturing the essence of a provincial, war-time French café) transported me back to Saturday evenings as a child watching the TV sitcom with my family. There can’t be many people who are unfamiliar with the antics and escapades of René Artois, his wife Edith, and the staff and clientele of his little French café in the stage version of this politically incorrect, irreverent parody of World War II drama, Secret Army, and the stage script incorporates many of the instantly recognisable catchphrases and most famous situations from the television original.
Deservedly topping the bill for the Wimborne troupe was Phil Vivian, who seemed to be channelling Gorden Kaye’s incarnation of the hapless and randy café-owner, with every gesture, facial expression, deadpan delivery and comic timing perfectly capturing the well-known character. His timing in particular demonstrated the very fine line between an intentional well-timed beat (which Vivian achieved) and heavy or laboured gaps, the former allowing comic farce to breathe, the latter causing the narrative to drag.
Vivian was well supported by René’s harem of women: Mary Almeida as his tone-deaf battle-axe wife, Edith, Debra Slee as waitress and arguably René’s real love, Yvette, and Rachel Hamilton as small but lethal waitress and would-be bodyguard for René, Mimi.
David Coward consistently maintained the physicality of Herr Flick’s limp, performing a nifty little tango along the way and captured the exaggerated clipped German tones well, but was rather more jovial than the ruthless, poker-faced Gestapo officer should be; on the other hand, Jeremy Austin’s General Von Schmelling appeared to relish barking every comment and command, with emphatic effect!
Overall the production at Tivoli Theatre was enjoyable, although lacked general pace to bring out the sharpness and slickness of farcical elements that can really make ‘Allo ‘Allo zing and, with a few stumbles and technical glitches with some of the radio mics causing imbalance in conversations between characters, this certainly wasn’t flawless – but it was a fine example of the value of community theatre and I look forward to seeing the exciting development of their future projects.
There is an information evening at Wimborne Town Hall on Sunday 23 June for anyone interested in joining in Project Play’s next venture, an opportunity for anyone interested in the wide range of roles on or off stage.