French Without Tears. Northcott Theatre, Exeter.
Take five ex-public school boys, a grumpy bearded French teacher, a blonde seductress and add alcohol. And you have Terence Rattigan’s sparkling 1930s comedy set in a French country house where a group of English chaps are trying to learn the language of the Gauls but whose testosterone hampers their studies.
The Orange Tree Theatre and English Touring Theatre co-production of French Without Tears is fast, fun and has a fat phrase book full of comic Franglais lingo. A largely young cast excel in doing their best to further widen the divide between them on that side of the English Channel and us over here in Blighty. The chaps are thrown together to learn French to enhance their job prospects but end up mainly falling in love with desirable Diana or prim and proper Jacqueline (played by the excellent Beatriz Romilly) who is the voice of reason when it comes to relationships and character.
Director Paul Miller got the pace just right with the drama hitting vitesse supérieure immediately and only slowing down for the corners for the moments d’émotion as the characters open up about their feelings. Feelings that are so bottled up it takes a boozy fancy dress ball for the boys to open up, while for the females’ inner feelings are more easily aired. And that’s the main theme of the drama: stiff up lip chaps unable to communicate or emotionally mature women who can.
Ziggy Heath as Alan Howard in his first professional stage role is a real find as the self-confident cock-sure frustrated writer who sees through Diana’s ploys from the off. Tim Delap’s nervous tick of a voice was comically nautical as Commander Rogers and Joe Eyre’s eccentric physical take on the emotionally constipated Kit brought guffaws from the near packed Exeter audience.
Sweeping almost all before her was Florence Roberts as Diana who could seduce for England if it ever became an Olympic sport (and why not) managing to sashay her way around Simon Daw’s set in a variety of Holly Rose Henshaw’s superbly chic costume designs. A set that consisted of one room complete with table and chairs but with a backdrop of words and phrases scribbled across someone’s French homework.
David Whitworth as Monsieur Maingot excelled in his role of grouchy langue modern tuteur telling off Kenneth (Alistair Toovey) for his French homework. Kenneth is nominally Diana’s brother but Rattigan gave little hint of this in his writing and the brother and sister seemed to be a plot device to explain Diana’s presence.
Another theme in the drama is class divide, and poor old Marianne (Ariane Gray) is barely recognised by the upper class twits due to her role as servant. Rattigan also fails to give her much to say or do relegating the lower classes to near-silent bit players in his view of the world. Alex Large as Brian completed the cast as the mustachioed easy going under achieving student – a character recognisable in today’s terms. French Without Tears is a period piece but with its battle of the sexes and class differences it still chimes along with the British public’s enjoyment of laughing at the French.
The play is on tour until November 19, 2016. Details: www.ett.org.uk
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