Monday 12 September 2022


 Royal & Derngate, Northampton

10th September 2022, matinee

attention, imagination and care

Despite being critically acclaimed as one of the greatest films of all time, I can’t pretend I’ve ever seen Jacques Tati’s 1967 comedy masterpiece or, indeed, any of his work. But having been brought up on the comedy of Mr Bean, it’s easy to see the universal and timeless influence Tati’s creation of Monsieur Hulot has had on the world. Theatre company Dancing Brick now invite a new generation into the stylish and comedic world of Tati. From near-misses to near kisses, the result is a visual feast of playful and stylish vignettes characterised both by slapstick and a romantic longing for a more analogue world.

Valentina Ceschi and Thomas Eccleshare’s co-production starts by introducing us to the character of Hulot (Enoch Lwanga). A tall, guileless presence in a brown mac and trilby hat, Hulot then steps into the manic twentieth century world, starting with an airport arrivals lounge. Here, Hulot takes a step back to let the chorus take centre stage. With minimal dialogue, it is unbelievable what the cast of five achieve, peopling the stage with tourists, nuns, lovers, opposing sports teams, chauffeurs and air stewards as they navigate their way along travellators and down escalators. Michael Vale’s design consists of six grey, uniform prosceniums which creates a sense of depth and gives the stage about a dozen entrances. Onto this comes a flurry of colour: actors exit downstage right as one character and then enter as another character upstage left seemingly a split second later, bringing order and disorder together.

In playtime, we’re strangers to the modern world. In the next scene, Hulot waits for his meeting with a businessman. It’s a brilliant sequence which brings out the humour in the strict order we assign to the modern world. The rigidity of systems, machines and processes is satirised through the highly stylised and comical movements to which characters are reduced. This same sense of humour continues in a scene at the Paris Expo which exhibits such trivial and bemusing modern world gadgets as the bouncing jug, red and white wine in one bottle, and fondue sets. Where Dancing Brick’s production is at its best is when it pushes the theatricality of the piece which merits its adaptation from screen to stage. We see this in a clever scene in which we have a window into two neighbouring hotel rooms where actors can hilariously have a presence in both simultaneously. In the second act, a frenzied scene set in a restaurant brings back the multitude of characters we met at the airport and more. Actors go from snooty Maître Ds to clumsy workmen and from tested chefs to tormented waiters. Cats escape, cutlery goes flying and neon lighting features are on the blink. This could do with some tightening but it aims for the farcical heights of Feydeau.

This is truly a company effort. Martin Bassindale, Valentina Ceschi, Abigail Dooley, Enoch Lwanga and Yuyu Rau all deserve praise along with the stage management team led by Lisa Lewis to achieve this theatrical feat. The amount of quick changes and crossing over backstage must be exhausting. It’s all underscored by Chilly Gonzales & Pierre Grilley and Martha Wainwright’s original music which elevates the drama (especially in the second act) and adds to the French feel of the piece.

I think Playtime could achieve a stronger sense of narrative throughout as it occasionally feels rather sketch-like. For instance, I thought the motifs of the two pairs of lovers could have been more firmly grounded. But overall, I admire Playtime’s boldness and innovative approach to reinventing a piece of 20th century cinema to 21st century theatre.

Playtime runs at Northampton’s Royal & Derngate until 17th September. For more information, please visit

Enoch Lwanga, Yuyu Rau and Valentina Ceschi in Playtime. Credit: Manuel Harlan

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