April in Paris is a two-hander which revolves around the lives of Al and Bet, a northern couple who are struggling with the strains of unemployment, boredom, and each other. When she is not working at an empty shoe shop, optimistic Bet (Shobna Gulati) spends her time flicking through magazines and entering competitions to win gadgets and holidays, whilst her sulky husband Al (Joe McGann) gets through his unemployment by painting drab industrial landscapes and moaning about Bet’s spending. They are an obviously unhappy couple, and whilst their constant bickering is funny, it is also rather depressing, and it’s hard to like a couple who seem to actively despise each other, with no real hope for improvement.
As one would expect, the hope comes from the prospect of an all-expenses paid romantic mini-break to Paris, which Bet has won through one of her competitions. However this doesn’t ignite the same excitement in Al as it does in Bet, and the bickering continues in much the same fashion, without any hope for respite for the characters, or the audience. Once the couple board the ferry to finally begin their Parisian adventure, we at last find a glimmer of sympathy with Al through direct address with the audience in which he explains his wishes to be as carefree and happy as Bet, but his debilitating lack of courage to do it. Whilst this monologue is useful and tender at this moment of change in Al, when direct address is used frequently later in the play to simply describe actions and changes of setting it begins to feel more like an A-Level drama technique than a sophisticated way to see the inner workings of our unhappy couple.
Gulati and McGann work well together and certainly both have the gift of comic timing, but unfortunately far too many of the jokes feel obvious, and the constant bantering between the couple has got rather wearing by the time the curtain comes down at the end of Act One. Act Two offers a change in setting and an impressive change in set from the dreary, cloudy backdrop of the couple’s small home, to the colourful bright lights of the sights of Paris, and the play certainly perks up once we have finally arrived at the long-awaited destination.
It is very hard to fill the vast Richmond Theatre stage with just two actors, though of course as this is a touring production perhaps they have been used to smaller venues. However, spending this long with two people who hate each other does feel rather claustrophobic, and also unnecessary, when other characters who could be brought on stage are clumsily mimed instead.
I can see what writer/director John Godber is trying to say with April in Paris, but he seems to get too caught up with easy gags for this meaning to come through clearly, and ultimately, the play suffers from a lack of easy sympathy. Whilst both Al and Bet are likeable characters, they despise each other so actively from start to finish that it is extremely difficult to root for them as a couple, and I was left wondering why they didn’t just pack it in in the first scene and save us all the trouble.
April in Paris is playing at the Richmond Theatre until 13 September before continuing a national tour. For more information see the Richmond Theatre website.