French Without Tears is back for a second run at the Orange Tree Theatre. And it’s a welcome return for it’s not often you find a comedy that translates perfectly from page to stage, yet this revival of the Terence Rattigan play achieves that, seemingly with ease. And that’s damn hard to do.
The story follows the romantic entanglements of a group of the British upper classes on vacation at a villa on the French coast in the 1930s. Ostensibly there to learn French from strict task master Monsieur Maingot (David Whitworth), the adults end up acting like children as they bicker over competing love interests, fret over career choices, and scheme to swindle potential lovers from the arms of others.
This is quick-witted stuff, packed to the brim with one-liners, perfect set-ups and physical comedy. And add into the mix a generous dash of misunderstanding over the French language and you have a perfect blend. This is damn funny.
Let me say that again, this is DAMN FUNNY.
I want to emphasise that again and again as not one joke here falls flat. Not one.
That is an extraordinary feat. It is incredibly hard to execute a comedy this well – especially humour as constant as this – without tipping over into farce and silliness. It would have been so easy for this adaptation to fall into that trap as the one-liners do come thick and fast, but some deft handling from director Paul Miller and a very talented cast prevent this from happening. The humour here remains sharp and on point.
There’s a wonderful sense of escapism to the piece. (These are tough times, after all, and, given the state we’re in, this piece acts as welcome relief.) But it would be a mistake to dismiss this play in its entirety as light and fluffy as, within its words, is a delicious skewering of masculinity, which remains a prescient issue.
This is a play about men and women, but under Rattigan’s pen this is actually a play about boys and women. The men here are ridiculous. Completely blind to being puppets on a string, they square up for fisticuffs over the smallest slight, quake in fear over not doing their homework, and, frankly, lack any semblance of courage to stand up on their own two feet. These are men in body only.
But there’s also a greater subtlety here from Rattigan as he makes his point. First, the men are reduced to fancy dress at a key point in the play and it’s no coincidence that there’s a feminine touch to a couple of the costumes (the Scottish kilt and the skirted Greek national costume) as well as a notable nod to gay community stereotypes with another in a sailor’s uniform.
But it’s also in his language too with Kenneth, the youngest at the resort, referred to constantly as ‘babe’, and the men often touchingly calling each other ‘my dear’.
But whereas the men are boys, the women remain women. How so? Their self-awareness. With each other, they are straight talkers. And these are women fully aware of their weaknesses as well as their strengths. Unlike the men, they are not blind to the world and their place in it.
It’s worth taking some time to just circle around the two female characters in the play – Diana (Florence Roberts) and Jacqueline (Beatriz Romilly). Basically, bad girl and good girl, respectively. Diane is all femme fatale seduction, a compulsive liar and an eager manipulator, and Jacqueline acts as her complete contrast – honest, truthful and faithfully forlorn in love with Kit (Joe Eyre) (who is blind to her obvious attention).
Now, we’re well into the realms of the saint-sinner complex that bedevils the portrayal of women. However, this production (much like its management of the humour) treads the fine line pretty well and the characters are saved by some impressive acting that brings just the right amount of nuance to prevent these characters becoming caricatures.
In Florence Roberts’ hands, Diane has enough glimpses of vulnerability and insecurity to make her human, and Beatriz Romilly brings just enough bite to Jacqueline to stop her falling into that trap of her kindness being her weakness.
But I want to make a special mention to every member of this cast as it really is a collection of impeccable performances and the chemistry between them is superb.
This really is such a good show. It won plenty of critical praise when this first ran at the Orange Tree and deservedly so. It’s rare that you find a perfectly pitched comedy, very rare indeed. This revival of French Without Tears is one of those very rare beasts.
Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, to July 30, 2016
Tickets from £15.
Image Credits: All photos by The Other Richard
1 Diana (Florence Roberts)
2 Alan (Ziggy Heath) and Brian (Alex Large)
3 Diana (Florence Roberts) and Monsieur Maingot (David Whitworth)