The Theatreguide.London Review
Orange Tree Theatre Autumn 2015, Summer 2016
Terrence Rattigan's eighty-year-old comedy plays like a typical romcom and farce, the sort that would take very little rewriting to look like a modern date movie. Paul Miller's production walks the very thin line between stylish and artificial, occasionally falling on the wrong side.
A handful of young Englishmen are in a language school in France, taking a crash course in French to qualify for the diplomatic service. Cue a string of jokes and comic situations generated by their linguistic ineptness, while the play takes its time finding its real subject.
Also present are Diana, an English femme fatale, who compulsively flirts with every male around, and Jacqueline, the schoolmaster's Nice Girl daughter, quietly in love with one of Diana's victims.
The first half of the play watches Diana ensnare and manipulate the men, while the second has them figure out what she's been up to and band together to help each other resist her. And yes, Jacqueline gets her man.
Working with a young cast, some making their professional debuts, director Miller has chosen to approximate an eighty-year-old production with an acting style suggesting a weekly rep company of the period – that is to say, entirely external and demonstrating.
Each given a single note to play, the actors signify their simple essences through grimace, gesture and body language, so that you could turn off the sound and still identify each character – the sexy girl, the stiff guy, the nervous guy, the nice girl, and so on – and even follow most of the plot.
This style actually works quite nicely sometimes, generally in the more broadly farcical moments, though at other moments it suggests a parody of the worst sort of amateur acting.
Rattigan's core subject throughout his career was the dark side of the famed English stiff upper lip, the cultural phobia about showing emotion that too often blocked his characters from a happiness well within their reach if they could only open themselves to it.
Here the few hints of that theme appear when the characters do let down their armour. The nearest thing to sympathy the play allows Diana comes when she admits that she has no talent except her sexiness and therefore has to rely on it, while the men achieve some warm bonding only when they stop hiding behind various 'manly' masks.
It is difficult to judge acting when everyone is a director's marionette but, barring the occasional wandering accent, everyone does as they're told adequately.
A director who chose to find more warmth and heart in Rattigan's play might have produced a richer experience for the audience. But played as shallow and artificial light comedy, French Without Tears makes for a satisfying and undemanding, if instantly forgettable, entertainment.
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Review - French Without Tears - Orange Tree Theatre 2015