FRENCH WITHOUT TEARS Orange Tree, Richmond & touring

EIGHTY YEARS ON:  MEN BEWARE WOMEN

 

At a moment when both female leaders and would-be leaders are rampaging across the news – May, Merkel, Leadsom, Eagle – it is pleasantly instructive to see this revival have a second Richmond season: it’s a comic squib from the young Terence Rattigan (before the dark sensitivity of Deep Blue Sea and Cause Celebre). And as women in our century wield real power, it is a time capsule, a period piece reminding us that not so long ago, the culture created a real male terror and misunderstanding of women: at least, of women whose main route to power was through being maddeningly seductive.
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The play vanished from the canon for decades, eclipsed first by Rattigan’s greater works and then by the years when he fell right out of fashion. But the Orange Tree’s production with English Touring Theatre has proved both fascinating and endlessly amusing: a meringue with a drizzle of lemon sharpness. A group of public-schoolish young men are staying in a villa in France to improve their French so that some at least of them can pass the exam for “The Diplomatic”.

 

 
Brian (Alex Large) is a basic male, insouciantly going off with local tarts with names like Chichi. Kit (Joe Eyre) thinks himself in love with the vampy, flirtatious Diana, whose younger brother Kenneth (a very sweet Alistair Toovey, giving just that edge of camp which reminds us moderns what really was on Rattigan’s mind all his conflicted life). Alan, (Ziggy Heath) tries to stand aloof from all this cynically; especially when the older, all-too-briskly Royal Navy, Commander Rogers arrives and proves Kit’s rival for Diana. Tim Delap takes the crisp RN manner almost too far, but rather movingly in the second act explains why: nervous of the cooler young, he was consciously performing the role. But it’s very funnily done. Old M. Maingot huffles around Frenchly, and his daughter, the unflirtatious and altogether sensible Jacqueline (Beatriz Romilly, a lovely warm dignified performance) sighs for love of Kit.

 

 

 

 

It is neatly and wittily woven , and gallops merrily along under Paul Miller’s brisk direction and some lovely roundhand blackboard-scrawls of schoolboy French. Florence Roberts’ Diana, around whom the whole business revolves, is perhaps dated in her obviousness, but frankly no more than many women who are still around: there’s nice chill in her confession to Jacqueline that she just likes making men fall for her because after all it’s the only skill she has.

 

 

 

But the point is the men’s behaviour: ardent, enslaved, seeing resentfully but helplessly the deficiencies of their idol, held at bay where real sex is concerned, altogether tormented, and in the case of the one she eventually lights on plain terrified. Rushing for the nearest train. Whereas Jacqueline – in a sentimental coda – wins by being plainly human, unmanipulative, a women of character and a kind of modesty.

 

 

 

But the panic, the combat and the nerve-shredded nonsense of the other men is a delight to watch. Some call it misogynistic, though the character of Marianne suggests the opposite. But one cherishes lines of male panic like “You can’t judge women by our own standards of right and wrong..How can you, they don’t have any”. Not to mention Alan ’s cry of “I shall fall, God help me, I know it. Never leave me alone with that girl!”.

 

 

box office 0208 940 3633 to 30 July. Then touring Sept-Nov
orangetreetheatre,co.uk and ett.org.uk

rating four 4 Meece Rating

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