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A CurtainUp London Review
French Without Tears
We may have come full circle with today's celebrated young actors, Damian Lewis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston and Harry Lloyd, and the not so young Hugh Laurie, schooled at English public schools, an ironic title for these prestigious fee paying boarding schools like Eton, Harrow and Winchester. Their education is often completed at the universities of Oxford or Cambridge before embarking on a starry profession once regarded as disreputable. There are articles in the press asking where today's young working class actors are?
It is from this upper middle class that the mature English students in 1936 are drawn, who are cramming for the Diplomatic examination in French at Monsieur Maingot's (David Whitworth) country house somewhere on the west coast of France. The students may be older but they are often not in touch with their real feelings. Monsieur Maingot insists on the use of French which puts the less competent French speaking actors at a disadvantage and thankfully for the non French speaking members of the audience is not upheld.
French Without Tears is in many ways a play ahead of its time. Some 1930s plays, especially those written later, concentrate on the brooding sense of Europe in the grip of Fascism about to go to war and indeed it is people like the future diplomats in French Without Tears who will try to avoid that war. The interesting theme for me in French Without Tears is the male bonding in the face of a sexually ambitious woman, Diana Lake (the seductive Florence Roberts). Initially the men are portrayed as putty in the hands of this physically attractive but predatory woman. Their lesson in the course of the play is not to let sexual attraction dazzle them to true virtue.
The joys of translating English idiom into French are responsible for much amusement. I remember my daughter telling me that the equivalent of having one's cake and eating it is, in French, to have the butter and the money for the butter. The often misquoted (was it really an Austrian countess?) Marie Antoinette's "Let them eat cake” when told the French people had no bread translated brioche into the English as cake. One student has the problem of translating "ideas above her station" and ends up with a nonsensical phrase that talks about on top of the railway station.
The English students may all be from the same class but they have different aspirations. Of the five men studying, Alan (Ziggy Heath) would really like to write but is conforming to the expectations of others, Kit (Joe Neilan) is headed for the Diplomatic Service and Commander Bill Rogers (Tim Delap) already has a good naval career but needs some language skills. There are two who are not enamoured of, or intimidated by, Diana; they are her brother, Kenneth Lake (Alistair Tovey) whose main function appears to be the reason Diana his sister has arrived there and Brian Curtis (Alex Large) who finds and pays for his female pleasures in the nearest French town. Kenneth may also be finding Alan attractive.
At the beginning of the play, Diana has cast off Alan in favour of Kit and we meet them first in bathing costumes after a morning dip in the sea. At least Diana is in her bathing costume revealing her physical charms, Alan has a dressing gown on. Diana is not likable as she seduces every man she meets but she does have confidence. M. Maingot's daughter and assistant teacher Jacqueline (Beatriz Romilly) is attracted to Kit but is less skilled at attracting men than the vampish Diana. As the serial seducer, Diana moves on from Kit to the commander, proposing a flirtatious walk with him in the area, Kit is left with Jacqueline and says, "I'll tell you Jack, I like you so much I sometimes find it hard to remember you're a woman at all." So Kit illustrates for us the differing relationship between men and men and men and women. Jacqueline doesn't have the sexual danger of Diana.
Despite having been warned about Diana, the older man Bill, a stuff shirt dubbed a member of "the silent service" still falls for her. Alan has called her a "scalp hunter." Diana butters up Bill with the statement, "Our feelings for each other are too precious to be soiled by idle gossip!" There is a brilliantly choreographed fight between the men which is really amusing.
A night out is proposed at the Casino to celebrate the 14th July and the dress code is costume. Kit's outfit is the bizarre Greek soldiers' white mini skirt or fustanella with red Fez, red pom pom'd shoes, and black mid calf socks with the suspenders hilariously showing. Bill, Alan and Kit all bond after this drunken evening and the ending will amuse everyone.
Every scene takes place in the living room of the residential school. Simon Daw's design has incorporated blackboards covering the front of the balcony with French phrases for the audience to translate as they wait for the show to start. The Orange Tree's square surround is fitting for the intimacy of this play. The ensemble performances are perfect with no weakness as the actors make us believe fully in this scintillating play about discovering who you really are. I think that Rattigan must have experienced this type of language cramming school and Alan's character is based on him.
Rattigan will go on to write serious dramas after this comedy debut at 25 years old. They too are brilliantly constructed plays like The Winslow Boy, The Browning Version, Separate Tables, The Deep Blue Sea and Cause Celebre.
I really loved this sparkling comedy in its brilliant revival from Paul Miller, Artistic Director at the Orange Tree. The characters, maybe with the exception of Diana, who gets her comeuppance, are all likeable and even the stiff commander later reveals a sharp sense of humour. I've booked to go again – the highest compliment I can give.
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French Without Tears
Written by Terence Rattigan
Directed by Paul Miller
Starring: Ziggy Heath, David Whitworth, Tim Delap, Florence Roberst, Joe Eyre, Beatriz Romilly
With: Alistair Toovey, Alex Large, Ariane Gray
Design: Simon Daw
Lighting Design: Mark Doubleday
Sound associate: Becky Smith
Composer: David Shrubsole
Fight Director: Terry King
An Orange Tree Theatre and English Touring Theatre production
Running time: Two hours 15 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 020 8940 3633
Booking at the Orange Tree, Richmond to 30th July 2016 and then on tour to 19th November 2016
Touring with English Touring Theatre to Exeter, Harrogate, Barnstaple, Cheltenham, Doncaster, Oldham, Coventry, Poole and Huddersfield throughout September October and November 2016
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 4th July 2016 performance at the Orange Tree Theatre, 1 Clarence Street, Richmond, Surrey TW9 2SA (Rail/Tube Richmond)
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