For their latest production, English Touring Theatre have turned theirattention to Terence Rattigan’s 1936 break-out play, French WithoutTears.
This is a rather light-weight comic confection, pre-second-world-war and pre-Osborne,and therefore not revived nearly as often as some of his other work, but itis nonetheless a taught and well-written play, and most importantly stillvery funny when performed with conviction.
The play deals with a group of men and women who are idling away theirdays in a villa on the west coast of France, taking French lessons inpreparation for entry into the diplomatic services. In their midst is oneDiana Lake, pert and blonde and pretty, a woman who, through her ability tolook fetching in a bikini, has a magnetic hold over all the men at the villa(though it’s never quite clear whether she’s there for lessons too). This issomething of a blow for Jacqueline the supposedly dowdy, but actuallyquite handsome daughter of the curmudgeonly French tutor, who is attractedto Kit. Unfortunately he only has eyes for Diana he refers to Jacquelineas ‘Jack’ and jokes that she’s just like one of the guys to him.
Paul Miller’s production plods along initially, taking a while to getgoing, but it really sparks to life in the second half, when it becomesclear that Diana has been lavishing her attentions on more than one of theirnumber and the men make a pact to resist her advances in future. There aresome brilliantly executed comic episodes, some truly hilarious moments thatthe cast really hurl themselves into.
Ben Mansfield, making his professional stage debut, is brilliant aswould-be writer Alan the scenes in which Diana tells him he is the trueobject of her affection, and he almost doubles-up in terror, are superblyperformed. As the Commander, a blustery English archetype with a good heart,Adam James also excels. Hannah Yelland is sympathetic as the lovelornJacqueline, but she, like Jenna Harrison who plays the predatory Diana, arestymied somewhat by the play’s dated view of women. They are very much theenemy, creatures to be feared.
Though it does show its age in this respect, in others the play feelsfresh and energetic. The later comic scenes of the men together, tipsy andterrified, feverishly plotting the best ways they can stay out of Diana’sclutches, are entertaining and very well constructed. Rattigan’s delightfulcomedy was well worth reviving in this respect and ETT have approached it inthe best possible way.
The production is midway through a regional tour. I caught it atRichmond, a theatre I hadn’t visited in a long while. Luckily there was aclassic Richmond audience in to make the experience complete. Two elderlyladies a couple of rows behind me were having a good old catch-up chat thatcontinued well in to the first act, they seemed almost surprised there was aplay in progress, and there was the usual scattering of near-fatal-soundingcoughing spasms too, seemingly planned, as these things are, to coincidewith the very quietest on-stage episodes.
Despite this the cast did a brilliant job of making the audience connect with the characters’ plightsand by the end of the evening the sound of laughter was the only noiseemanating from the stalls.