The Theatreguide.London Review
Park Theatre February-March 2016
Jonathan Lynn's docudrama about two leading figures in twentieth-century French history has all the virtues (easy history lesson) and all the limitations (not really much drama) of the genre.
Its strongest attraction is the unquestioned pleasure of watching two able and charismatic actors – Tom Conti and Laurence Fox – at work.
Philippe Petain was France's greatest military hero in the First World War. Raised to the position of Prime Minister, he made what he saw as the tactical military decision of an armistice with Germany in the Second World War, effectively surrendering to save France from total destruction.
After the war he was convicted of collaboration and treason.
Charles de Gaulle was a minor officer in the First War with an undistinguished military career thereafter, largely because his ego and open contempt for everyone he considered less intelligent than he (which was everyone) blocked his advancement. In the Second War he escaped to Britain, where he declared himself the leader of a ragtag Free French Army and a government-in-exile.
After the war he was hailed as a national hero and repeatedly elected President.
In Jonathan Lynn's eyes the two men, who knew and loved each other, were very much alike – both iconoclasts repeatedly disagreeing with the orthodox military thinking of their time, both contemptuous of those who didn't see their superior wisdom.
They were natural allies against the world until they disagreed and their equal egos made it impossible for them to do anything but turn against each other.
Playwright Lynn tells the story through the unoriginal device of having the imprisoned Petain reminisce to a visitor (creating some awkwardness when we have to be shown scenes Petain was not present for).
Tom Conti employs all his immense charm as a performer and all his flirting-with-the-audience tricks to make Petain a loveable old rogue, more amused by the persistent stupidity of others than enraged by it and affectionately indulgent toward the younger de Gaulle's exasperating traits.
Laurence Fox has the more subtle task of presenting all of de Gaulle's ramrod-stiff self-righteousness and humourlessness, while still letting us glimpse tiny hints of an attractive humanity slipping out, as when, late in the play, de Gaulle surprises himself more than anyone else by actually telling a joke.
The two men share a warm and entertaining drunk scene but, as ably directed by the playwright, the strongest and most touching indications of a bond between them come in the several occasions that they unconsciously echo each other's words when expressing similar thoughts.
In a cinematic plot structure of short scenes linked by Petain's narration, the supporting cast of Niall Ashdown, James Chalmers, Ruth Gibson and Tom Mannion play Everybody Else in instant characterisations that can't always have much individualisation or depth – we only know Ashdown's Pierre Laval is a bad guy because he wears a sinister-looking hat.
Learn from the illustrated history lesson and enjoy the drama of watching two immovable objects approaching inevitable collision. But the real pleasure of The Patriotic Treasure is watching Tom Conti and Laurence Fox displaying their talent, expertise and attractiveness as performers.
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