French Without Tears * * * * *
Malvern Festival Theatre
Review by Terry Grimley
According to theatre legend, Terence Rattigan's well-made plays were made obsolete overnight by the success of Look Back in Anger in 1956.
While interest in Rattigan had begun to revive by the time of his death in 1977 and later plays like The Winslow Boy have re-established themselves in the repertoire, opportunities to see the comedy which established his reputation just over 70 years ago remain few and far between.
But here it is, revived by the excellent English Touring Theatre in a production beautifully directed by Paul Miller. It's like being presented with a meticulously-crafted time capsule which only needed a new generation of theatre craftspeople to breathe fresh life into it.
And that is why this show is such a joy. There is not a single celebrity in the cast, nor even a face I recognised from TV – just talented, mainly young actors (though Terrence Hardiman's performance as the tyrannical greybeard Maingot is a particular pleasure) intent on recreating a theatrical landmark to the best of their considerable ability.
Briefly, the year is 1936 and a group of young Englishmen are supposed to be learning French at Monsieur Maingot's residential school on the French coast, mainly with a view to entering the diplomatic service.
They are distracted by the presence of Marianne, a Marilyn-like femme fatale. One of the young men, Kit, thinks she is in love with him but when the older Lt-Commander Rogers arrives she is quick to switch her affections.
Rattigan spins gradually more ludicrous variations on this battle of the sexes among the leisured classes. With the benefit of historic hindsight there is a strong gay, or at least camp, undercurrent to its Coward-like story of male bonding in the face of female aggression.
The would-be detached and cynical Alan (a strong performance by Ben Mansfield), torn between a diplomatic career and writing, clearly stands for Rattigan himself.
Alan, perhaps like Britain at this time, also seems poised uncertainly between isolationist pacifism and idealistic aggression. "There must be a war to fight somewhere," he says at one point, and a year later there would have been one to fight in Spain.
But French Without Tears is more than a document of its time. More importantly, its comedy still makes people laugh.
Running time: Two hours, 25 minutes. Until Saturday.