Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Theatre Review: French Without Tears (Orange Tree Theatre)

 Joe Eyre, Florence Roberts and Ziggy Heath in French Without Tears
(Photo by: The Other Richard)

It’s both with great delight and a little bit of trepidation that one heads back to the Orange Tree to see French Without Tears, the OT’s co-production with English Touring Theatre, which, revived and (mostly) re-cast, is now back at the theatre before touring later this year. "Delight" because Paul Miller’s staging of Terence Rattigan’s fragrant 1936 comedy was one of 2015’s most purely pleasurable productions; "trepidation" because revisiting favourite productions can carry some risks. Will the show remain as delightful this time around? Or will its pleasures seem diminished in some way? 

Happily, the former proves to be the case here. Miller pitches this revival so perfectly, with so much charm and intelligence and lightness of touch, that resistance is pretty much futile, whether you’re seeing the show for the first or the second time.  

Rattigan’s play takes place on the west coast of France, where a group of young Englishmen have gathered for the summer to study French for the Diplomatic exam at Monsieur Maingot’s “cram school”. Cross-cultural and (especially) linguistic misunderstandings come to the fore, but, mostly,  the play (which was Rattigan’s first hit) is all about the romantic complications that the protagonists find themselves embroiled in, involving the arch-temptress Diana and Maingot’s daughter Jacqueline.

"Is there something more to this than a mere frolic?" wonders Dan Rebellato in his programme essay. Well, compared to the bruising and cathartic likes of The Deep Blue Sea  (currently at the National Theatre in Carrie Cracknell’s fine production), the answer has to be: "No." Yet, watching French Without Tears again, the beauty of its construction becomes even more apparent, as does the surprising amount of nuance that Rattigan brings to his characterisation of the protagonists which, while sharp and wry, never resorts to mean-spirited mockery, and gives the actors plenty of opportunity to go beyond caricature.

The two cast members reprising their roles – David Whitworth as Prof Maingot and Joe Eyre as Kit – both excel again, with Eyre, in particular, skilfully underplaying (even when dressed in one of the year’s most outrageous costumes) to make Kit’s love-sickness and jealousy both funnier and more relatable than I'd remembered it. The new cast members feel equally at home, too, with Tim Delap expertly incarnating a British naval "type" in Commander Rogers: uptight and awkward yet good-hearted and surprisingly perceptive. 

Alex Large makes the uncomplicated Brian (as keen on "tarts" as he is rubbish at French) entirely adorable. Beatriz Romilly invests Jacqueline with sweetness and shrewdness, articulating at least part of the play's perspective when she describes men as "blundering fools". Florence Roberts renders the cooing seductress Diana a more overt manipulator than Genevieve Gaunt did last year, but also clearly makes us understand the motivations of a character  who believes that her only gift is to make men fall in love with her. As the smug observer Alan, Ziggy Heath comes into his own when the character gets knocked off balance by a surprise declaration from Diana.

With a fine design by Simon Daw, and lovely music by David Shrubsole, Miller’s production is perfectly paced and pitched, reaching its comic apex in a wonderful post-revels scene between Rogers, Brian and Kit. Hilarious, loveable, and the ultimate cure for Brexit blues, it’s still hard to imagine seeing Rattigan’s play served better than this.

French Without Tears is booking at the Orange Tree until 30 July. It tours with English Touring Theatre from September to November. Details here

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