French Without Tears

Terence Rattigan
Orange Tree, Richmond

Genevieve Gaunt Credit: Richard Davenport
Sarah Winter Credit: Richard Davenport
William Belchambers, Patrick McNamee and Joe Eyre Credit: Richard Davenport

For some inexplicable reason, French Without Tears has completely disappeared from the repertoire. This may, in part, be explained by the Terence Rattigan's fall from favour as his stylish but traditional form of playwriting was literally ridiculed (by Ken Tynan) with the arrival of the Angry Young Men in the mid-1950s.

Those lucky enough to see Paul Miller's revival at the Orange Tree will discover a charming piece with plotting that could come from a Restoration Comedy and almost as many laughs.

This light-hearted comedy with a real soul is set in a French coastal crammer during 1936, where five Englishmen are learning the lingo for a variety of reasons.

In reality, the central trio are more interested in the charms of Genevieve Gaunt's flighty, manipulative Diana, the ultimate vamp who accurately describes herself as "having a gift for making men fall in love".

Skimpy clothing and some great but oft-repeated chat-up lines help the process along, first with Joe Eyre as Kit, then William Belchambers playing Naval Commander Bill and marginally more sincerely Alex Bhat in the role of Alan, a wannabe writer who seems destined for the Diplomatic Corps.

Each of the young men is in thrall to the siren and it might well be that many male members of the audience are similarly enchanted, while realising that this kind of woman is arguably little better than the ladies of the night favoured by another of the classmates, Tom Hanson as Brian demonstrating the kind of execrable French accent that gets Brits a bad reputation on the continent.

Contrasting with Diana is Sarah Winter's Mademoiselle (or Jacqueline/Jacq), the sweet-natured daughter and assistant of the tyrannical tutor.

While educating her charges, Jacq despairs over even persuading Kit, blinded by her rival, that she is as much in love with him as he might be with her, if you would only give himself the time to appreciate her less flashy but much more worthy charms.

While a significant proportion of the 2¼-hour running time is taken up with humour that draws on both the inabilities of the English to master a foreign language and the chains of passion, in the last of the three acts, something deeper takes over as Cupid belatedly points his arrows in the right direction.

A well-chosen cast is headed by the two leading ladies each of whom gives an equally good performance in very different roles.

French Without Tears is a highly enjoyable play that is yet further justification for the return to popularity of Terence Rattigan and the pleasures that can be derived from old-fashioned, well-made plays even in these high octane times when instant gratification always seems to be the order of the day.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher