El Diablo is an Australian take on the old-fashioned English farce, complete with all the hallmarks of the genre: class politics, double entendres, stock characters and histrionic acting. It is a flashback to Benny Hill and the Carry On movies of the 60s and 70s and it does the job well.
The action takes place over a single, hour-long act. There is one set for the duration of the show – the interior the fine dining restaurant of the show’s title. Two small tables covered in white tablecloths inhabit the small space, fitted out with fake flowers and candles. Music is used sparingly – only a brief score of lounge music at the beginning and end. This show is really all about the characters.
Couple Maurine and Paul are first-time fine diners. They enter the makeshift restaurant wearing loud, floral clothes. She is heavily pregnant, and they speak in coarse Aussie slang. Paul is appalled at the expensiveness of the establishment – ‘can you believe they charge $25 for a Heineken?!’ The waiter, Nathaniel (played by Luke Witham), tries his best to accommodate the couple who are clearly out of their comfort zone.
Witham is consistently entertaining as the over-the-top waiter, who starts off endlessly polite, but completely loses his cool as the night progresses, reminiscent of a John Cleese character.
There are numerous gags at the expense of the working class couple, but the joke is really on the wealthy, regular diners, Ian and Siobhan. From the moment they enter the stage and are seated next to Maurine and Paul, the contrast is apparent. When Maurine recognises Siobhan as an old school friend, she and Paul insist on joining the rich couple, much to the horror of the latter. After Ian’s business associate and his new girlfriend enter the equation, there is no going back; all the airs and graces quickly dissipate and the true natures of the characters are revealed.
The action is a kind of pastiche of 1960s British sitcoms. The conversations of the characters traverse low-brow sexual innuendo and sharp social and political observation. The characters are funny and engaging, if not stereotypical – we have certainly seen these people before.
The 1970s comedy Fawlty Towers comes to mind often throughout the performance, notably invoked via the running joke of the unruly diners needing just ‘one more minute’ to decide on the menu.
Gippsland-based HT&E Theatre Co ‘aims to produce edgy, original theatre with a bent on social commentary and observation’ and El Diablo certainly adheres to this ethos. Although the jokes are sometimes cringeworthy, the comedy, importantly, punches up for the most part.
While the audience laughed at the crassness of Maurine and Paul, and Taylor the social media influencer (played by Emily Slade in a charming performance), the real fools are the wealthy couple, whose cruel nature and inauthenticity is revealed as the action unfolds.
The working class people may be rough, but at least they are honest with themselves and each other. The social media influencer may not be a great wordsmith, but she is authentic and kind. The pretentiousness and ridiculousness of overpriced fine dining is also targeted.
Writer, director and producer Phillip A Mayer, who also played Billy, has succeeded in creating an entertaining show which, although adhering to well-worn conventional formulae, hit its targets and created a fun night out.
Butterfly Club, Melbourne
El Diablo was performed from 3-5 November 2022.