Don't Dress for Dinner. By Marc Camoletti, adapted by Robin Hawdon. Directed by Walter Learning. Canberra Repertory Society. Theatre 3, 3 Repertory Lane, Acton. Preview November 19 at 8pm, then November 20-December 5. Tickets $42/$36, preview $33. See: canberrarep.org.au.
Canberra Repertory's fifth production in its 2015-16 season is a French farce done in an English translation directed by a Canadian. This multicultural mirthmaker is Don't Dress for Dinner and it will be the 11th play Walter Learning has directed for Rep since 1987.
Learning says the 1987 play Don't Dress for Dinner was written in French by Marc Carmoletti, author of the earlier hit Boeing-Boeing. Its original title was Pajamas Pour Six and it ran in Paris for more than two years. A British producer acquired the English-language rights and had playwright Robin Hawdon do a rewrite, keeping the French setting. The result was a huge hit that ran in London for six years.
Don't Dress for Dinner is a sequel to Boeing-Boeing with the same two male characters, best friends Bernard, played by Peter Holland, and Robert, played by Robert De Fries.
Bernard lives in a country retreat a couple of hours from Paris and his wife, Jacqueline (Monique Dyson), is going away to be with her mother for the weekend, so he's planning to entertain his mistress, Suzanne (Michelle Cooper). He invites Robert over, too, as he has arranged the services of a cordon bleu chef, Suzette (Natalie Waldron) to cook dinner for the three of them.
But, of course, this being a farce, nothing goes according to plan. As Learning says, in a classic farce set-up: "You take a number of people who should never meet under any circumstances and bring them together as soon as possible."
We soon discover there's more than one affair going on here, as well as secrets and lies, mistaken identities and attempts at deception.
Although the show is set in France, Learning hasn't had his cast put on French accents, instead focusing on getting the farcical elements right, in particular the tempo of the piece and the sense of timing of all the actors as someone – in this case Bernard – sets up what's at stake and brings an escalating sense of panic to the proceedings.
"Peter and Rob did my last farce and work really well together ... they keep up the energy but never lose focus."
Don't Dress for Dinner is a bit different to most of the farces Learning has directed, with the emphasis here on verbal and situation comedy, rather than slamming doors in unison.
And one of the biggest challenges in directing a comedy, he says, is keeping a feel for what's funny.
"For a long time, you're the single audience. When you've heard the same joke 150 times, it's hard to have that spontaneous reaction."
But, as with everything else, he just has to keep working at it. And he's had plenty of practice at Rep, with an association that goes back more than half a century.
"I came over as a 24-year-old in February 1963 as a Commonwealth Scholar working on my doctorate in philosophy at ANU," Learning says.
On his first day, he saw there was a new Australian play, The Ballad of Angels' Alley, at the Riverside Theatre in Kingston, where Rep performed at the time. Before the show was over, he knew he wanted to be involved. He met the artistic director, Alan Harvey, stayed out until 2am with the company members, and returned at 2pm to audition for his first play, Becket.
"I got a couple of small roles."
He went on to act in many more Rep shows over the next few years and learnt a lot.
"I had a director named Ralph Wilson, a wonderful director who taught me know to listen."
It's not enough simply to know your own lines and say them well, he learnt. You also have to listen and react to what others are saying.
Another important lesson he learnt the hard way was: don't fall off the stage. It was while playing the Common Man in A Man for All Seasons, but he managed to stay in character.
"My next line was, 'Well, I'm still here'."
But they were all good lessons to learn and, while he returned to Canada for an academic career in 1967, he had been bitten by the theatrical bug and it wouldn't be too long before he became a professional theatre manager, actor and director working around Canada.
"I've been fooling them ever since."
Learning never forgot his Canberra experience and has directed here many times, the last two plays also being farces, Out of Order four years ago and It Runs in the Family seven years ago.
And now he's back once again to raise some laughs from Canberra audiences.