LONG ISLAND, THE WIGS AND THE WARDROBE…
The Jean Anouilh plays I devoured as a neurotic sixth-former always had Antigone, Joan of Arc or Thomas a Becket heroically refusing compromise and salvation in the name of moral integrity. Ideal for a furious convent girl. I did not know his first big hit – the 1937 Le Voyageur Sans Bagages, which takes on a classic impostor-adoption theme (these were big in both sets of postwar years: think of Tey’s Brat Farrar, du Maurier’s The Scapegoat).
Here, a WW1 soldier with total memory loss after years of captivity is told he belongs in an aristocratic family. But on learning about the bad character and awful deeds of the lost son, he can’t reconcile it with the principles of honesty and kindness his amnesiac self embraces, and manages to fake his way out of it into a poorer but honest family. Therefore, this being early 20c French drama, one might gratifyingly go in deep about identity, morality, and the existential question “Who am I?”.
But let’s not bother. This is a new version by Anthony Weigh, set in a 1950’s, Eisenhower-y, Cold War I-Love-Lucy world, and I would much rather tell you about the wigs. Instead of Anouilh’s lawyer here the introducer of “Gene” to the posh Fox family on Long Island is Katherine Kingsley, having a riot of a time as “Mrs Marcee Dupont-Dufort” in a Lucille Ball barnet in hellfire red, cawing and writhing and yearning up the social ladder via fine parvenue malapropisms to the fury of her grouchy-Groucho husband De Wit (Danny Webb, splendid). Then in a rigid Marcel-waved perm wig we have Sian Thomas as the clipped and drawling Mrs Fox, having just as much fun with it in a more tight-gusseted way; and the sexually thwarted daughter-in-law Valerie Fenella Woolgar gets in a ‘fifties flick-up mullet and nasty attitude. When Marcee asks with electric-log warmth “What else is family for?” it is Valerie who replies “Target practice?”.
The men don’t get wigs, but Barnaby Kay makes an impressive transition from sullen lump son George to speaking with sudden humane reality the play’s most significant line in Act 2. Rory Keenan, initially underplayed as calmly baffled, catches fire and panics once he realizes that if he is indeed Jack Fox, he was an utter bastard. The family, to ‘remind’ him, surround him with fearful stuffed animals he used to kill obsessively. It’s certainly the first elk I have seen on the Donmar stage, and multiple taxidermy foxes, fawn, fowls, and a rather sinister raccoon (or badger? bit wonky, that one) appear after the interval. Gene panics but George, in that one important line, pleads “Do yourself a favour. Forget him. He was just a kid”.
Gene does better, thanks to an invasion of twenty other families trying to claim him, and a possibly semi-symbolic small boy emerging from a mirrored armoire with news that M.Anouilh has suddenly realized that he has to end this damn play somehow. Mr Weigh is thus enabled to bring back the peerless Katherine Kingsley with her wig even wilder, and throw more 1950’s American class-war jokes. Oh, and there’s a memorable monologue, delivered with thwarted fury by Danny Webb’s de Wit Dupont-Dufort, which may well make a lot of wives hope it isn’t the night to take the bins out. Enough said.
So it’ s reasonable fun, a lark, a bit of a cartoon kept romping along (apart from a few slow scenes) by director Blanche McIntyre. And there’s a teeny retro aeroplane to look forward to if you pay attention . Which you can, because the wig-wearers have gone offstage by then, leaving just an impassive, impressive , and mercifully hairless Trevor Laird as the butler.
box office 0844 871 7624 to 16 APRIL
Supported by the John Browne Charitable Trust and season supporter Arielle Tepper Madover