Molière in a version by Martin Crimp
With the draw of the elfin Keira Knightley, Thea Sharrock's updated revival of Martin Crimp's cynically sharp version of the Molière classic did not need to be good to sell out. However, it has turned out to be one of the highlights of the season, if not the year.
The only question on most people's lips was whether the indisputably gorgeous Hollywood icon would embarrass herself in making a belated stage debut. The actress is helped by playing a character that must contain much of her milieu and herself, albeit with an American accent.
After a nervous opening, the Atonement and Pirates of the Caribbean heroine really comes into her own, as her film starlet character gets angry with her insufferably jealous lover after the interval. From that point, she acts as if to the (West End) manor born in very strong company.
Molière always knew how to look at life with wry humour and Martin Crimp has a similar, if more modern, outlook and love for his language. He has matched the maître rhyming couplet for rhyming couplet and throughout writes with sparkling wit about the emptiness of celebrity under the relentless media spotlight.
The real star is red-headed Band of Brothers actor, Damian Lewis in the title role of Alceste. He plays a writer who, despite the efforts of his long-suffering friend, Dominic Rowan's John, takes a personal vow to tell things as they are, whomever he might offend along the way.
In principle this sounds fine but when you are dating a hot Valley Girl film star and moving amongst her sycophantic circle, the consequences can be pretty bloody. Lewis plays up the misanthropism, which quickly involves wilful self-destruction, successfully expressing his character's mental tug of war.
Alceste doesn't help himself and his jealousy inevitably offends and riles Jennifer. However, everyone else on show mixes big doses of both the bold and the precious in her presence with equally disastrous and comic results.
On a stylish Hildegard Bechtler set that balances Louis XIV with post-post modern, the catalyst for much of the trouble is a Heat-style celeb-secrets journalist Ellen, played by Kelly Price. Her publication of Jennifer's revelations, which are at the same time true and deeply offensive, is tasteless but so shallow is this world that the beautiful are instantly forgiven by the greedy and lustful.
The leads are supported brilliantly by Tara Fitzgerald as strident, sexually frustrated neo-feminist Marcia, who covers her vulnerability with bombast. Almost equally entertaining are Rowan (Nicholas Le Prevost playing a larger than life agent) and Tim McMullan's critic turned hack playwright, Covington, the most obvious émigré from the Comedie Francaise, with his deliberately mannered acting style.
In five short acts over two hours, we learn vast amounts about the attitudes of today's superstars both real and wannabe but also to some extent their equivalents 350 years ago. Pleasingly, the humour rarely lets up and Crimp's/Molière's poetry just keeps on surprising with its versatility.
Thea Sharrock is fast becoming the hottest young female director around and when you can call on Keira Knightley, Damian Lewis and Tara Fitzgerald for a French play from the Seventeenth Century, you know that you have made the grade.
On this occasion, a very rich mix of ingredients turns out to be a feast fit for a (Sun) King.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher