Wednesday 14 October 2015

Theatre Review: French Without Tears (Orange Tree)

Genevieve Gaunt in French Without Tears (Photo: Richard Davenport)

With his sparkling, affectionate revival of French Without Tears, Paul Miller delivers one of the year’s most purely pleasurable productions. Terence Rattigan’s 1936 comedy, about the romantic complications among a group of English youth at a French summer school, was the playwright’s first big stage success. The play was also one of the primary targets for the anti-Rattigan brigade of the 1950s.

French Without Tears, which has some affinities with Rattigan’s 1943 While the Sun Shines (revived at Pentameters back in 2011 [review]), clearly belongs to Rattigan’s early period, and, while there are some subterranean links to his later dramas, it would be a mistake to look for too much depth under the play's shiny, epigram-strewn surface.  Still, if French Without Tears is essentially a trifle, it’s a well-constructed and fairly substantial one that’s not without some insight in its gleeful exploration of the machinations and the madnesses of love.

As usual, Miller very much takes the text on its own terms, refusing to place it in knowing quotation marks, or to dress it up with contemporary nudges and winks.  The result is the kind of blissfully confident production in which every element feels in sync. And the evening has one undeniable asset: the brightest (and hottest) young cast to currently be seen on a UK stage.

There are several star-making turns: from Genevieve Gaunt as Diana, the cooing, sulky, ever-manipulating seductress who’s recognised that her only talent is to make men fall for her, and who intends  to exploit that gift to the full; from Joe Eyre and William Belchambers as her current love rivals, Kit and Rogers (Eyre spends most of the second half in one of the year’s most memorable costumes, while Belchambers allows his hilariously awkward, deadpan Commander to lighten up by just the right degree); and from Tom Hanson, who’s adorable as the marvellously uncomplicated, French-mangling and tart-loving Brian. 

Tom Hanson in French Without Tears (Photo: Richard Davenport) 

As Alan, vacillating between submitting to his father’s plans for his career and pursuing his own writerly ambitions, Alex Bhat makes a sensational professional stage debut, moving from shrewd, smug observer to befuddled participant as Diana turns her attentions his way. Veteran David Whitworth is priceless as the school’s Prof Maingot, demanding that French be spoken at all times and forever entering the scene just when the tensions between the men are about to get physical. And Sarah Winter (who made a minor role in the Finborough’s 2012 revival of Hindle Wakes truly memorable) is appealing as Maingot's daughter, who’s nursing her own unspoken crush on Kit.  

In short, the production has a wonderfully generous sense of ensemble, and, throughout, one feels the entire cast’s sheer pleasure in the rhythms and wit of Rattigan’s dialogue, and the funny lines they get to deliver. Our own current toff-bashing cultural moment might make French Without Tears a hard sell to some. But leave any such prejudices at the door and it’s impossible not to get swept up in the beguiling effervescence of Miller’s perfectly charming revival.

Booking until 21st November. Further information at the Orange Tree website

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