French Without Tears***** (Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond)

Posted: October 14, 2015 in Theatre

french without tearsThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Hear the name Terence Rattigan and what usually springs to mind is tear-soaked dramas filled with outpourings of suppressed emotions. Back in 1936, Rattigan had his first big hit with French Without Tears and the staple ingredients for such a drama were there, except that the tears that soaked it were ones of laughter. More Coward than traditional Rattigan perhaps, but, if it had been Coward, out of his very top drawer. The scene is a villa in France where Monsieur Maingot (David Whitworth) and his daughter Jacqueline (Sarah Winter) are giving crash courses in French for English professionals who need to speak the language to further their careers. Set in the round as the Orange Tree dictates, designer Simon Daw places blackboards chalked with French words and phrases around the balcony, with simple wooden chairs and a dining table taking centre stage on a terracotta tiled floor. Mark Doubleday’s warm lighting adds to the rustic French feel. Paul Miller’s has dusted off Rattigan’s classic and his exuberant revival triumphs largely because of the extraordinarily talented, mostly young company that he has assembled. The characterisations and comic timing are faultless. Alex Bhat is the arrogant and conceited Alan, reluctantly following Daddy into the Diplomatic Corps; Joe Eyre is the gullible Kit, oblivious to the adoring looks of the besotted Jacqueline; Tom Hanson is the grounded Brian, who is utterly hopeless at French; and William Belchambers is Bill, a stuffy naval officer, coming late to the party. The “babe” of the group is Kenneth (Patrick McNamee), also aiming for the Foreign Office, and he brings along his big sister Diana, simply because she has nowhere else to go for the Summer. She in turn has nothing else to do but to lure men into her web and devour them without conscience. Genevieve Gaunt’s Diana is a voluptuous temptress to whom “love is subliminal sex”, contrasting completely with the demure and “nice” Jacqueline. The action over a two week period sees changing couplings and switching allegiances as the men fall under the spell of or repel Diana. A hilarious fancy dress ball sees Monsieur kilted as a Scotsman and Kit in a skirt; inevitably, it all comes to drunken fisticuffs. Diana hooks Kit and Bill, only to be thwarted by the contemptuous Alan. Anyone who has ever seen a romantic comedy will recognise that the mutual loathing of Diana and Alan can mean only one thing. And so it goes, but the impeccable construction of scenes and the constant flow of witty dialogue mask the more obvious turns of the plot. Rattigan proves an astute observer of the rituals and posturing defining the English male of his era and the laughter of this audience almost 80 years on indicates that the traits put on display are still recognisable. With Alan being an aspiring writer, there may be much of the playwright himself in the character, but, given what we now know about Rattigan’s life, it is the wistful looks of Kenneth as he yearns for the attention of Alan that give this production its most poignant moments. Miller’s supremely well judged and brilliantly acted production fizzes from the start and then bubbles over to yield what is quite possibly the funniest final Act to be seen anywhere this year. All that is left to be said is “Vive l’Oranger!”

Performance date: 13 October 2015


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