French Without Tears (Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond)

French Without Tears (Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, until July 30th)

It is hard to understand why Terence Rattigan tried to play down the success of his first major offering, French Without Tears, fearing it would mark him as frivolous and lightweight.

As Director Paul Miller seeks to prove in this Orange Tree co-production with the English Touring Theatre, Rattigan’s 1936 comedy may contain elements of farce, but has style, substance and sparkling staying power. It doesn’t once feel dusty or dated, as the period setting is all but stripped away in favour of developing the characters, the relationships and the pace.

The theatre first staged the piece last autumn to great acclaim, and it is to be congratulated on reviving it so soon prior to a short national tour, so more audiences can enjoy the frothy masterpiece. Its intimate in the round setting allows for moments of tenderness to work as effectively as the in your face comedy.

If many of Rattigan’s well-known works are dark, serious and even dangerous, French Without Tears provides a lively counterpoint and this production is as fresh as summer strawberries, funny, and full of fizz.

The setting is a French seaside villa (a beautiful design of rustic charm by Simon Daw), where a group of would-be English diplomats are trying to study French. But the “foreign language” the young men learn is more to do with awakening and sometimes confusing sexual desire than conjugating verbs. Even well-placed baguettes and large cigars seem to add to the sense of masculine sexual tension.

Several of the cast are fairly new to the stage, but the performances are all of an extremely high standard, displaying fine comic timing and giving a genuine depth and warmth to their characters.

Making his first professional stage role, Ziggy Heath brims with confidence as arrogant Alan, enduring a rollercoaster of emotions in both his romantic entanglements and career path. Tim Delap is what can only be described as spiffing in the role of the stiff upper-lipped naval commander Rogers, who may be able to command a warship brilliantly, but is all at sea when pursued by a seductive siren.

Florence Roberts plays the part of temptress Diana Lake with such seductive allure, it would be no surprise to see hot-blooded male audience members hurling themselves onto the stage, for she never overplays the feminine wiles, rather adapts her Lorelei charms for whoever happens to take her fancy. There is a lovely balance to this from Beatriz Romilly as the plain and pained Jacqueline, who is barely even noticed by the object of her affections.

Also discovering the joie de vivre and amour are Joe Eyre as the easily-swayed and needy Kit, Alistair Toovey as “Babe” Kenneth, whose own sentimental aspirations don’t get a look-in, and Alex Large as Brian, useless at French, but whose sexual endeavours become near-legendary. David Whitworth is the strait-laced Maingot, more concerned about the boys’ French vocabulary than their affairs of the heart.

There is something vivacious and summery about this delightfully entertaining and hilarious production, which allows Rattigan’s light-hearted treat to be considered on a par with his more serious offerings. Vive la comédie.

Image: The Other Richard

(This review first appeared on The Reviews Hub website)