Monday, 23 November 2015

'French Without Tears' at the Orange Tree Theatre

We went on another visit to the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond to see the penultimate performance of 'French Without Tears' by Terence Rattigan. How fitting that this tale of upper-middle class young men should be in upper-middle class Richmond. I've seen a few Rattigan plays over the years and they're all of their time, generally including lots of posh people, but the only one I actually liked was his tale of airmen in the Second World War in 'Flare Path' (with Sheridan Smith and Sienna Miller).

'French Without Tears' is one of his earlier plays and is set in a house on the French coast at which various posh young men are staying to learn French. As well as the middle aged teacher and his daughter (who also teaches), a young lady is staying with her brother because she has nowhere else to go since her talks are in India. The appropriately named Diana is a femme fatale and her prey in men. Two of the young men are learning French to help them pass the entrance exams for 'the Diplomatic', another is a rich young man with nothing better to do while another wants to learn French for 'commercial reasons'. They are soon joined by a new student in the form of a stiff upper lip naval commander. And the scene is set.

The constant bickering between the men in the first half makes most of them rather unpleasant characters and Alan who wants to join 'the Diplomatic' since his father is a diplomat is distinctly misogynistic with a definite downer on women and Diana in particular. Diana is a man-hunter, always needing a man to fall in love with her and as soon as she's achieved that then searches for a new man to make fall in love. It's her nature, as she says at one point. When the commander arrives she sets her sights on him and effortlessly wins him, much to the chagrin of Kit, who also loves her. The men start to fight and, during verbal sparring realise that Diana has said the same thing to each of them and realise that game's afoot. This aces them all bond as brothers to fight off the spells of Diana. It was only in the latter stages of this half that I started to see anything likeable in any of the male characters.

In the second half, Kit and the Commander win free so Diana sets her sights on Alan and effortlessly makes him fall for her. O dear, men are such fragile creatures. He also wins free and decides to chuck in becoming a diplomat and wants to go back to England to become a writer. In the meantime, Kit has decided that he really loves Jacqueline, the French teacher who has loved him for two months and the Commander, of course, has his love of the sea. And Diana? Well, there are always other men.

The characters are almost universally awful except for Jacqueline (played by Sarah Winter with a very good accent) who is sympathetic throughout and Brian (played for laughs by Tom Hanson), the bluff Englishman with the atrocious franglais accent and who likes the company of the local ladies of the night for 50 francs a pop. Tom had some of the best lines in the play and plays Brian as a jolly good sport, liked by all, not terribly bright but a good egg. The best line for me was when talking about Diana and how she turns the green light on men she likes then said she was 'pretty stingey with the orange and red ones' - that tickled my funny bone no end. Genevieve Gaunt was also fun (in a two dimensional way given her character) as Diana, never without a cigarette on the go and exposing flesh whenever possible.

The staging was nice but the costumes were awful, with hems frayed and seams not straight and all seemed a little too big for the people wearing them. O well, you can't have it all in small theatres. But, at least, once again, the Orange Tree has put on something a bit different that no-one else seems to want to play so it's worth it for that alone. I'll keep an eye out for Sarah Winter and Tom Hanson - it'll be interesting to see where they turn up next.

No comments: