French Without Tears
English Touring Theatre and Orange Tree Theatre in association with Exeter Northcott Theatre
Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield
In recent years, the playwright Terence Rattigan (1911-77) has made an astonishing comeback. Thea Sharrock’s 2010 revival of After the Dance (1939) at the National received rapturous reviews, and in 2011 there were numerous acclaimed productions across the country to celebrate his centenary, including Trevor Nunn’s Flare Path (1942) at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket and Thea Sharrock’s Cause Célèbre (1977) at the Old Vic.
These days, Rattigan is probably best known as the writer of serious dramas like The Winslow Boy (1946) and The Deep Blue Sea (1952), but his first major success was the comedy French Without Tears (1936), which originally starred Rex Harrison, Jessica Tandy and Trevor Howard.
Set in a villa on the west coast of France, a group of young men are trying to learn French in order to join the diplomatic corps. Presiding over this crammer is the elderly Monsieur Maingot (David Whitworth), who struggles in vain to keep his pupils focused on their work.
The main distraction for this bunch of overgrown schoolboys is the glamorous femme fatale Diana Lake (Florence Roberts), who whiles away the time by making men fall in love with her. Her current victim is Kit (Joe Eyre)—the most innocent member of the group—whom she has wrapped around her little finger.
A love triangle soon develops when the new arrival, naval commander Rogers (Tim Delap), catches Diana’s eye. The characters’ love affairs become even more entangled when we learn that aspiring writer Alan (Ziggy Health) also loves Diana, and Maingot’s sweet-natured daughter Jacqueline (Beatriz Romilly) is secretly carrying a torch for Kit. Will the men escape Diana’s clutches? Will Kit choose the right woman?
Since Rattigan’s fall from grace following the emergence of the "Angry Young Men" in the late 1950s, French Without Tears has rarely been performed. This is a shame for, as this production proves, Rattigan’s play is a witty and sparkling comedy about male anxiety and the fear of women.
Some audiences may find the sexist attitudes of the young men unpalatable, but Rattigan succeeds in showing how ridiculous such ideas are by poking fun at the immaturity of the male characters. To quote Dan Rebellato, “in French Without Tears, the real farce is masculinity itself”.
Audiences accustomed to the repressed emotions of Rattigan’s other plays may be surprised by just how funny French Without Tears is. Paul Miller’s terrific production makes Rattigan’s comedy feel both fresh and contemporary. It is a delightful piece of work.
There is an effortless grace and fluidity to Paul Miller's direction. Simon Daw’s set design evokes the 1930s without being overly cluttered with period detail, and the blackboards covered in French writing make a striking backdrop for the production. Holly Rose Henshaw’s costumes are perfectly suited to the characters and the period.
It is startling to think that several members of the cast have only recently left drama school, as all the actors perform with supreme confidence and skill. Ziggy Heath, making his professional debut on stage, is outstanding as the pompous and aloof Alan. Florence Roberts excels as the alluring Diana, capturing the character’s self-assurance and charisma.
Joe Eyre skilfully conveys Kit’s wounded male pride and provides many of the play’s funniest moments, particularly in the scene where he challenges his love rival to a fight whilst dressed in a fustanella. Tim Delap’s restrained turn as the solemn, uptight Rogers offers a pleasing contrast to some of the more neurotic characters. Special mention must also go to Beatriz Romilly, who gives a lovely and touching performance as the lovesick Jacqueline.
Paul Miller’s production of French Without Tears is funny, moving and stylish. It is also one of the finest shows I have seen on stage this year.
Reviewer: James Ballands