Elisabeth Dermot Walsh
Jean Anouilh was all the rage in the forties and fifties, with the Gallic sophistication and graceful wit of his plays appreciated by both the public and critics. Revivals have been few and far between in recent years, however, so it is interesting to see how one of his best-known works, L’Invitation au Chteau here in Christopher Fry’s celebrated adaptation Ring Round the Moon – fares sixty years after it was written. Sadly, it has not dated well.
One of Anouilh’s pices roses (as opposed to his darker pices noires), this romantic comedy takes place in a country chateau owned by the redoubtable Madame Desmortes. Her nephew Hugo has invited the nave and beautiful ballet dancer Isabelle to a society ball there in order to distract the attention of his twin brother Frederic away from his rich but shallow fiance Diana, who is actually in love with Hugo. Needless to say, in this game of mishaps and misunderstandings, the plan does not run smoothly, especially when Isabelle herself falls for Hugo, though a happy resolution is never in doubt.
While Fry’s title suggests the fairy-tale quality of Anouilh’s play, the subtitle of his version, ‘A Charade with Music’, emphasizes the role-playing involved and the dance-like change of partners. The magical mood of the piece is similar to Sondheim’s musical A Little Night Music (based on Bergman’s film Smiles of a Summer Night, which itself was inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream). The carousel of love has a dizzying effect so that the protagonists lose their sense of direction.
The trouble is that although this souffl possesses an airy charm, it also has pretensions of seriousness below its gossamer surface which fail to convince. The opposition of true love and unaffected feeling with shallow materialism and class snobbery seems contrived, while the epigrammatical penses sprinkled throughout the play sound stilted. This is perfectly pleasant entertainment but it lacks the humorous bite of Wilde or Coward’s best work.
Director Sean Mathias has decided to set the show not in Anouilh’s original setting of the La Belle Epoque but at about the time the play was written, in the early 1950s of Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’. However, this means that the rigid class structure of pre-First World War society is missing, while the references to the Jewish community now make no sense in the post-Holocaust era. Colin Richmond’s chic costume designs, in a ravishing range of colours, are certainly eye-catching but his conservatory set seems rather dowdy for such a high-society affair.
Playing the twin brothers, J.J. Feild cuts an elegant figure on stage but doesn’t do quite enough to distinguish between Hugo’s cynical playfulness and Frederic’s melancholic affection. Fiona Button makes a vulnerable yet feisty Isabelle, contrasting with the spoilt bitchiness of Elisabeth Dermot Walsh’s Diana. As Madame Desmortes, a sort of fairy godmother Lady Bracknell, Angela Thorne excels in delivering no-nonsense put-downs to her attendant Capulat (an amusingly sentimental Joanna David). Belinda Lang rather overdoes the irritating garrulousness of Isabelle’s mother, but Leigh Lawson brings a Shavian energy to the part of Diana’s Jewish millionaire father Messerschmann, and Peter Eyre is splendidly sonorous as the butler Joshua, struggling in vain to impose order on the unruly household.