Adapted by Richard Bean
Directed by Lindsay Posner & Lisa Blair
Theatre Royal Bath
Thursday 16th October 2014, matinee
Starring Tony Robinson, Imogen Stubbs and Tracie Bennett
The play is also known as The Imaginary Invalid (Le malade imaginaire) and premiered in 1673. Molière took the lead role himself, fell ill in a performance and died a few hours later.
It stars Tony Robinson, as it says so prominently on the programmes and even on the tickets: Starring Tony Robinson. Hubris. The set is semi-circular, and Robinson, as Argan, the hypochondriac, is mainly confined to a commode / wheelchair in the centre in a static piece. The concept is Argan as a grubby, squawky Baldrick-stye hypochondriac. That, to us, was the problem. We discussed it at length. The hypochondriac needed to be nervous, immensely precious, self-centred – for both of us, we imagined Richard McCabe playing it. We felt Tony Robinson as a grubby Baldrick invalid was a major casting error. Yes, there’s all the stuff about collecting and collating his stools, Howard Hughes style, but … It really didn’t work. He was static, shouty, derivative. We’ve seen him do it before in Blackadder. Filthy Baldrick. There are piles (sorry) of poo jokes, and that fits in squarely with our concept of Baldrick in Blackadder always in the mire and producing foul concoctions. I would have chosen to play in contrast to the constant stream of poo jokes with a precious person, self-obsessed. On the constant poo jokes, they really are funniest when you’re a kid.
We know that Moliere was a “comedy-ballet” with music, and the musicians (2 guitars, trumpet, lead vocal) did three numbers in front of the drop curtain, including Blood in My Poo and Hypo-chon-driac. They were good, funny, reminiscent of One Man Two Guv’nors . Excellent trumpet playing. Brilliant singer. The “ballet” part was confined to a dance at the end, with the cast as medical students with beards. It was truly dire. To say it was amateur insults amateurs. A dreadful bit of unchoreographed vague prancing about in the place where the RSC or The Globe send you home thrilled with their final dance. This really looked like drunk medical students jumping about. That was what it was intended to be, but deliberately bad is a hard act to pull off. They didn’t pull it off.
The Hypochondriac takes us to classic farce. This version had none of the speed, energy, comic timing, or movement that classic farce requires. It was wordy, dull and static. Maybe that was Moliere’s fault. He was after all dying when he wrote it. The two cast members who leapt out as way above the average were Imogen Stubbs as Beline, the second wife and stepmother to Angelique, and Craig Gazey as Thomas, the trainee doctor that Angelique has been promised to. He was extremely funny and looked extremely funny. The theatrical superstition about green costumes is said to result from Moliere dying after this play, where he wore green. They dressed Thomas in the brightest greens as an in joke. Very good. Imogen Stubbs pitched her performance exactly right for farce. These two stood head and shoulders over the rest of the cast because they had a connection to true farce. They also had the best parts for it. The best scenes involved one or the other. Period.
Argan (Tony Robinson) & Beline (Imogen Stubbs)
Tracie Bennett did a creditable and lively servant, Toinette, but we both spent our two hour drive home talking about business which could have enhanced her role. She has a bit where she has to go off and come on again as a new doctor. She just had a turban and an Indian accent to contrast with her normal Lancashire … she’s very good on accents. OK, everyone knows it’s her, but fast change on or off stage (and then failing with bits of costume) is what you do in farce. Sticking on a turban isn’t much of an effort. OK, the constraint is she has a 17th century skirt and petticoats to cover. So … as she is going to be an Eastern doctor, she could perhaps pick up a tablecloth or pull down a curtain in our full view (of strong obvious design, that Argan could stare at) and wrap it round her as a robe. You could have had a line about the curtain. Then she could pretend to switch gender with a deep voice that sometimes drifted into high. In 1673, Argan would have assumed a doctor was male. She could have let the Indian accent slip back into Lancashire a couple of times. It’s all basic farce business, and it was missed.
There were good and funny references to Moliere and the theatre throughout. A lot of the doctor jokes resonate well with today and got the biggest laughs. Commenting on the medical profession was funnier than poo. Otherwise, this is certainly no One Man Two Guv’nors from writer Richard Bean. Perhaps he’s stretching himself too thin. Pitcairn (LINKED TO REVIEW) is on at the Globe. Great Britain is opening in the West End. We’re a couple of weeks before the opening of Made in Dagenham. As One Man Two Guv’nors (LINKED REVIEW) is still running, that’s five at least.
They finished with the old surgeon joke (pull out the linked sausages). We were shown this ancient sketch by the great Turkish mime artist, director and writer, Taner Barlas, who performed mimes with our ELT theatre group while he was learning English in 1972. I really know the classic surgeon routine backwards, forwards and sideways. This was confused. It was enlivened only by sawing the woman in half which was perplexing in its execution. I still don’t know how they did it. But the surgeon is a classic. I’ve seen the surgeon done better a dozen times.
So, we both thought it too static for a farce, both in set and direction, definitely miscast in the lead role, vague and uninspired, uninspiring set. Costume was good, though I wouldn’t have given Argan heels on his shoes as the height contrast (taller woman) is always farce too. It was worth watching for Toinette, Beline and Thomas’s roles.
It was one of the poorer productions we’ve seen this year. It’s surprising as Posner’s Hay Fever here a few weeks earlier was brilliant. By the way, if you see the extremely negative online comments at Trip Advisor from people who jumped ship at the interval, it wasn’t THAT bad. I certainly didn’t notice anyone leave at half time, and it wouldn’t have occurred to us to do so (and it does sometimes). It had quite good applause, not ecstatic or whooping, but reasonable for Bath on a Thursday afternoon. I think they’re partly complaining about the “play what Moliere wrote” to quote Ernie Wise. Moliere’s original has all of the poo and piss jokes.