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APRIL IN PARIS – Richmond Theatre, London.

April-in-Paris

Photo by Robert Day

Thirty years ago, Andy Warhol gathered together 300,000 disparate possessions in cardboard boxes, creating a makeshift time capsule for the edification of future generations. There is another time capsule of sorts playing at Richmond Theatre, where John Godber’s revival of his 1992 work astonishes with material, attitudes and form that must surely have seemed strangely passé even on first viewing; today, it’s positively antiquated. There’s nothing wrong with period drama, of course, but those mounting it must find some kind of relevance in the material in order to engage a contemporary audience. In the case of April in Paris, one wonders whether that relevance ever existed.

The play’s premise – ploddingly established in an excruciatingly sluggish first half – involves two people with exceedingly narrow world views and the gradual broadening of their horizons through travel and new experience. Unemployed builder Al (Joe McGann) and shoe-shop worker Bet (Shobna Gulati) endure a dreary, cash-strapped existence in Hull, Al painting countless grey industrial scenes and obsessing over their decking, Bel splurging on small indulgences like scarves and chocolates and entering magazine competitions in the hope of winning a means of escape. Win she eventually does, and as the title so helpfully suggests, their getaway destination is Paris.

Godber’s interest is in the paradox of travel: that it can be gloriously transformative, but simultaneously make us despondent when confronted with the limitations of our home lives. Sadly, his material doesn’t illustrate that dialectic in compelling fashion, as Bel and Al’s home life is equally infuriating before and after their trip, but a weirdly ambivalent tone makes it unclear whether this stasis should evoke humour or pity. Their relationship is intensely problematic, falling back on archaic gender clichés: he’s a manly grouch, suspicious of new things and too fond of his nine pints; she’s a girlish shrew, spending money they don’t have and nagging him to pay her more attention.

Gulati and McGann, while committed comic actors and sometimes emotionally engaging on their own, exhibit zero chemistry as a married couple, even one in the dying embers of martial bliss. Their painfully repetitive sniping makes this two-hour play a clowning Groundhog Day – in fact, you would get the same viewing experience watching one 1970s sitcom episode again and again. The odd joke carries a sting, but Godber doesn’t commit to the dark side of their claustrophobic lethargy; those hoping for a British Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? will come away disappointed.

More egregiously, their brief holiday employs every cliché imaginable: if you bring along a Paris bingo card, you’ll have it filled out within minutes. Mimes, accordion music and the Eiffel Tower are all present and correct, as are those stale observations of Brits abroad, from transport confusion and horror at alien toilet provisions to meal orders lost in translation. Godber argues such clueless tourists still exist, and that may possibly be true, even in the internet age, but it makes for tediously predictable viewing. Designer Pip Leckenby’s decision to switch from monochrome to technicolour on entry to Paris, à la The Wizard of Oz, is the recycled straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Nor, despite its timeliness, does April in Paris have anything incisive to add to either the cost of living crisis – the 1992 version, with its housing-market woes and high unemployment rates, feels eerily familiar – or the Europe debates, beyond echoing economic gloom and embodying and half-heartedly judging a few UKIP-esque xenophobic prejudices. Is this a Nigel Farage origin story masquerading as romcom? And are we meant to sympathise or identify with its inhabitants, or should the humour come – as it too often does – from a somewhat uncomfortable, certainly patronising form of judgement?

The current European dispute does invite an artistic response, perhaps seeking a greater understanding of the root causes of our present situation through nuanced character work, or  illustrating and interrogating possible solutions. Instead, Godber takes great pains to raise a chuckle from the sight of someone pretending to vomit over the side of a ferry. If that appeals, you may find some charm in this cosy, old-fashioned two-hander; if not, April in Paris isn’t worth the trip.

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Reviewed 25/07/14/

By Marianka Swain
@mkmswain

9th – 13th September 2014
Richmond Theatre, London, TW9.

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