The late, great Observer film critic Philip French, writing in 2009, described Jacques Tati’s 1967 film Playtime as a “satire on soulless, conformist modernity”. Modern life’s mechanical rigidity, all straight lines and sharp edges, is gradually subverted by the bumbling human behaviours of Tati’s trademark character, Monsieur Hulot. The co-directors of this new stage version see the film differently. For Valentina Ceschi (who also performs) and Thomas Eccleshare, Playtime is about “walking down the street and being alive to the other people sharing your space”. In their very free adaptation, Tati’s satire is bubblegummed into a sort of meet-cute comedy. A chance encounter – cue long looks and pink clouds – between Hulot (Enoch Lwanga) and an American tourist called Barbara (Yuyu Rau) becomes the main thread along which the action is strung.
Tati’s plot becomes a pretext for a demonstration of performance techniques, centring around lightning characterisations, quick changes, physical comedy and sight gags. As in the film, there is no actual text: words are used for their sound effects rather than for communication. The skills on display are admirable. Five actors play more than 100 roles, each one distinct and, usually, credible (cod-French behaviours, overplayed, come across as trite); notable cameos include Martin Bassindale’s Brief Encounter-style lover and Abigail Dooley’s maitre d’.
Overall, though, too much is crammed into overextended, mechanistic and schematic scenes. From the airport arrivals hall onwards, it often feels as if we are watching a relentless conveyor belt of set-piece vignettes, sustained more by the bright beat of a bossa nova-ish soundtrack than by the scenario (music from Tati’s films and by Chilly Gonzales, also Martha Wainwright). By contrast, a split-room scene, where Ceschi fast-switches between maid and vamp characters, shows how much fun can be had when a situation is given time to develop playfully. Less, in this production, would achieve so much more.