Orange Tree Theatre, London (****)
Boys will be boys – and in Terence Rattigan’s French Without Tears (1936), women are seen as okay if they were more or less surrogate fellas. Anything more extravagant and they are quickly deemed `femmes fatales’.
Being Rattigan, of course, that’s only half the picture. There’s more to his `comedy of manners’ – and in fact plenty of tears – for all its light, frothy appearance. Ultimately, Rattigan’s first major hit is an elegantly observed critique of the young, British upper-class male, just before war fractured everything. More honestly than most, Rattigan seems to be saying, men were terrified of women.
Like Noel Coward, a certain amount of concealed auto-biography may be going on here, particularly in the character of Alan, cynical, witty, agonising (as did Rattigan) over a choice of career between becoming a writer or joining the diplomatic service, for which purpose the rest of his compatriots are boarding at a house in south west France, ostensibly to brush up their French.
Alongside Alan, there is Kit hopelessly in love with the flirtatious `scalp-hunter’ Diana; Brian, jolly, bumbling, good-natured and `Jack’, the daughter of French tutor, Monsieur Maingot (a delicious portrait from `old-timer’ David Whitworth), with eyes only for Kit.
It only takes a further element to stir the brew to boiling point. It comes in the unlikely shape of naval officer, Commander Rogers.
In Paul Miller’s sparkling, recast production – returning for a second time before touring this autumn with the English Touring Theatre – Tim Delap as Rogers gives a delightfully subtle portrayal of pomposity. When mixed with falling in love’s absurdities, it produces some classic Feyeauesque/Love’s Labours Lost comic mayhem – none more so than Rogers and Kit, both in fancy dress fighting over Diana, only to end up best chums.
A study in male folly, Rattigan also makes a thoughtful analysis of the difference between love, sex and friendship. Miller’s revival is welcome. For some reason, despite its original popularity, it’s rarely revived these days. But judging by the enthusiastic reception from the Orange Tree’s young audience, its appeal endures.
A showcase of budding talent, Beatriz Romilly, impressive at the Arcola in the harrowing, After Independence (see previous Reviewsgate review) is here delightfully insouciant as the patient, wise `Jack’.
Review first published in Reviewsgate, July 2016 and slightly amended here.