French Without Tears
by Terence Rattigan
Directed by Paul Miller
Designed by Simon Daw
Music composed by David Shrubsole
English Touring Theatre / Orange Tree Theatre
Thursday 10th November 2016, 19.30
Tim Delap – Commander Bill Rogers
Joe Eyre – Kit Neilan
Ariane Gray – Marianne
Ziggy Heath – Alan Howard
Alex Large – Brian Curtis
Florence Roberts – Diana Lake
Betriz Romilly – Jacqueline Maingot
Alistair Toovey – Babe, aka Kenneth Lake
David Whitworth – Monsieur Maingot
Terence Rattigan’s first success, in 1936, it is set in a language teaching situation and it’s a comedy. That’s enough for me. I find his comedy in the recent productions of Harlequinade and While The Sun Shines better than his serious efforts. The original run was Rex Harrison’s first major success too, and it was a popular film in 1940.
At least Poole have given it a five day run for a change. Recently the one, two and three day events pepper the programme. It’s good to see a play having a proper chance of word of mouth.
The success came after Rattigan had been given two years to establish himself as a writer, and it came right at the end … and ran for three years. The character of Alan, studying for the diplomatic service French exam, while trying to get a novel published is transparently Rattigan’s alter-ego. With hindsight, he is played as pretty camp, but then a lot of the language among the boys early on is dear, darling, babe so maybe it was always a camp part … of course the man who women confide in. Alan (Ziggy Heath) is an accomplished student.
The play takes place in a French crammer in the mid 1930s. It’s run by Monsieur Maingot (David Whitworth) and his daughter Jacqueline is a teacher. Monsieur Maingot wrote his own textbook, which includes enquiries about a man walking and holding a red flag in front of a locomotive, evidence that it is some years out of date. Having dredged old phrase books for comic examples myself, this could have been expanded. They also have a servant, Marianne (Ariane Gray) who we only hear speak French.
Jacqueline (Beatriz Romilly)
Brian (Alex Large) is studying French for commerce, drives a fast noisy car and is continually trying to find 50 francs to spend on the local tarts. Brian is separate in being up front and cheerful about sex.
Babe, ready for the fancy dress ball
Babe (Alistair Toovey) … I think we only discover his name is Kenneth from the programme … is inept at French and continually being told off by Maingot. His gorgeous siren of a sister, Diana (Florence Roberts) is staying there, though not studying.
L to R: Kit, Diana, Alan
Kit (Joe Eyre) is the romantic, in thrall to Diana. He loves her and believes she loves him. Actually, teacher Jacqueline loves Kit but dare not tell him.
Enter Royal Navy Commander Bill Rogers (Tim Delap), a new student, a stereotypical clipped sentence comic officer type. As Alan says, Diana collects scalps, and sets her sights on the Commander. We’re in for a contest.
The play is about fear of the female, and conducted in 1930s RP accents (though not Advanced RP), and we can believe that public school boys with little experience of women would have been terrified of Diana’s rampant sexuality. The funniest parts are the competition between the Commander and Kit for her affections. In the second half, she is forced to choose … and switches to Alan, who is even more terrified of her.
Diana and Monsieur Maingot
Rattigan is using some well-tried and hoary comedy tricks. We worked with Bob Spiers on a video series, and as well as Fawlty Towers, Bob had directed Are You Being Served for years. He told me that he got so fed up of the inevitable “put an established character in a funny costume and get a big laugh” moment. It always works though, and happens here, when they have to go to a Fancy Dress Ball. Judging from the programme, the costumes were originally deliberately somewhat gay, with Babe in a tight sailor suit, and Kit in a Greek soldier’s skirted costume, but instead of white wool tights, he has blue socks with suspenders, and a red pom pom on his formal shoes. You can’t go wrong with a tall thin comedy actor in a skirt with knees showing above socks and suspenders. Monsieur Maingot is in a Scottish kilt.
This is the point where the Commander and Kit start to threaten a fight … Alan gets punched and knocked down by the Commander, and a very well-executed punch it is. At another point, after the ball, Kit, Alan and the Commander have got totally drunk and male-bonded. There is a comic struggle to remove Kit’s skirt … interrupted by Diane in a sophisticated dress and fur stole. It really is the naughty boys (whose actions are also somewhat suspicious) and sophisticated superior female moment.
It is a young, fresh cast. Online reviews go back to last Autumn at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond-on-Thames (both Domenic Cavendish in The Telegraph and Michael Billington gave it four stars). That was performed in the round. We’re a year on, during an extensive autumn 2016 tour, and most of the cast are new, though set and costumes seem the same. Kit is a central role, and is still played by Joe Eyre. Joe Eyre is continually nervous, moving his hands, standing awkwardly … like a young Bill Nighy, I thought.
Ziggy Heath is outstanding as Alan … and in his first professional stage role. He would do well in Noel Coward “semi-autobiographical” stuff too.
Tim Delap as Commander Rogers and Florence Roberts as Diana Lake
It relies very much on Florence Roberts as the sexy siren, and she looks and sounds perfect, the part relies so much on body language and facial expression. Another 2014 graduate who is outstanding. Beatriz Romilly plays the gawky, inexperienced Jacqueline. The scene where the two women are together, with Diane offering to sew up the decoration on Jacqueline’s Austrian costume stands out among so much male banter.
Tim Delap as the Commander is a stereotype … well, they all are, but plays it powerfully.
It’s well-directed, full of youthful enthusiasm and spirit. It comes back in the end to how much you like Rattigan. I’ve slowly been converted from dislike through grudging admiration to liking Rattigan, with Separate Tables (at Salisbury) and Harlequinade (with Kenneth Branagh) being the plays that finally changed my mind.
French Without Tears is much earlier, and so creakier than either, and seems a template for While The Sun Shines seven years later … three men competing for one woman, comic mix ups, sailor suits, and a funny Frenchman. I think he improved the formula. It’s a comedy, not by any means a farce.
Inevitably with the Parlez vous Franglais series by Miles Kington running for years, Rattigan missed some good opportunities for Franglais, though it’s a tradition in English comedy which runs from Chaucer’s prioress to the Henry V wooing Katherine of France scene in Henry V (much the funniest, when done well).
I thought it was a first-rate touring production of a popular comedy which is very entertaining, but much more from the acting of the cast than the intrinsic Rattigan material.
TERENCE RATTIGAN PLAYS ON THIS BLOG:
- All On Her Own by Terence Rattigan, Kenneth Branagh Company 2015
- Flare Path, by Terence Rattigan, 2015 Tour, at Salisbury Playhouse
- Harlequinade by Terence Rattigan, Kenneth Branagh Company 2015
- Ross by Terence Rattigan, Chichester Festival Theatre 2016
- Separate Tables by Terence Rattigan, Salisbury Playhouse
- The Deep Blue Sea by Terence Rattigan (FILM VERSION)
- While The Sun Shines by Terence Rattigan, Bath, 2016