April in Paris is a warm, funny two-hander starring Shobna Gulati and Joe McGann as Bet and Al, a working-class couple from Hull who, despite barely being able to tolerate each other, win a romantic break to the city of love. Playing on the well-worn comedy theme of “Brits abroad”, the play is nevertheless also a rather subtle exploration of a relationships, unemployment and poverty.
We join warring couple Bet (Shobna Gulati) and Al (Joe McGann) on the decking of their modest suburban home. Bet, working extra hours to make ends meet, takes refuge in glossy magazines, entering competitions she never wins. Al, a redundant plasterer, paints smoky cityscapes in a bid to fill his days. Their constant sniping is dark, vicious and hilarious. Gulati is a convincing mixture of sweet and sour as her natural optimism is confounded by her curmudgeonly husband. McGann is charismatic and compelling; a man with a thwarted work ethic and a bleak future. Their exchanges are sharp and loaded , their timing impeccable as they allow silences, sighs and body language to say all the things that can’t be said. Ironically, despite their drab, passionless lives, each character reserves the greatest resentment for the other’s passion. Al exhorts Bet to give up her competitions (“It’s all a fix! No one ever wins.”) and Bet obstinately refuses to praise her husband’s artwork.
Gulati’s nuanced performance must be singled out for praise. She allows us to see the future mapped out in her distant expression: a place devoid of possibility or good fortune. The turning point, in the form of a letter, restores her joie de vive. A competition win at last; a night in Paris for two. As she plans the getaway (she must buy a suit!), Al complains about the travel, the food, the “foreigners”. When Bet threatens to take her sister instead, we see a glimpse of what really drives Al – fear. McGann is at his best when he lets a glimmer of vulnerability shine through Al’s xenophobic bluster.
Presented by April in Paris Ltd and Derby Theatre, the play has travelled extensively since its West End debut. The simple but aesthetically pleasing set, lighting and sound effects all translate well to the intimacy of the Rep auditorium. The “cardboard cut-out” minimalism of Al and Bet’s home is brought to life by floating clouds, colourful spots and an atmospheric soundtrack: “Handbags and Gladrags” to denote Hull, Edith Piaf and accordions for Paris. The Parisian setting, a labyrinth of iconic tourist sites, is appropriately larger-than-life, garish and illuminated by fairy lights, adding to the sense of wonder and possibility experienced by our intrepid travellers.
The two Gallic scene-shifters, who glide onstage in stripy jerseys and berets, quickly become scene-stealers as the audience watch them transform Bet and Al’s house into a cross-channel P&O ferry. This is an inventive and fun solution to the problem of scene changes in such a Spartan design.
Shocked out of their ennui, the couple soon embrace the different culture. “It’s bigger than our decking,” Al concedes. With just a couple of bistro chairs, Gulati and McGann manage to evoke a powerful restaurant scene. Later, standing before the Mona Lisa, his growing sense of awe is palpable and he realises that there is a world of possibility out there.
English dramatist, John Godber, now acclaimed for his observational comedy, wrote April in Paris for the 1992 Hull Festival. It was a low-key affair. He received no payment and performed the two-hander with his wife, Jane, as a way of cutting costs. The play retains the charm of its humble origins. It is a tale of an ordinary couple, experiencing an event which, to them, is extraordinary. In a world of cheap flights and bargain breaks, it is a timely reminder of the healing and transformative power of venturing over one’s own doorstep.