Palace Theatre, Watford
Opened 14 November, 1995

Terence Rattigan's "sophisticated comedy" is safe regional-house fare, and constitutes a pre-Christmas breather in Giles Croft's well balanced first season as artistic director at Watford. Thankfully, Tim Luscombe's production makes a little more of it than the sterile throwback it could so easily have become.

James Merifield's design locates the action in a crumbling, drained swimming pool with palm trees thrusting through its sides. It constitutes a muted comment on the decadence of an upper-class 1930s milieu in which young men, usually of little brain, take themselves off to cram for the language paper of their Diplomatic Service exams in a comfortable French villa. However, Luscombe makes no corresponding directorial comment upon events; throughout the first half of the evening we are presented with a simple romantic comedy set among the gilded youth of a bygone age, as the duplicitous siren Diana two-times nice but dim Kit and the newcomer to M. Maingot's little école, braided naval twerp Lt-Cdr Rogers.

It is diverting enough, but seems rather pointless. Sara Crowe relishes the opportunity to play a vamp rather than an ingénue, though even with her voice dropped half an octave it retains echoes of the Philadelphia bleat which continues to haunt her. The mannered cynicism of Alan Howard (Louis Hilyer), as he watches the merry dance, fails to add another dimension to the proceedings.

However, after the interval the mood crystallises brilliantly. As Kit and Rogers discover that they have been gulled and band together with Alan, it becomes clear that at the heart of the play lies a study in male friendship. It would be glib to ascribe this to the homosexuality of Rattigan, although it palpably informs his perspective. The trio's drunken bonding carries only the faintest such overtones. (The inebriation, although heavily written, is seldom overplayed, and indeed supplied a minor gift on the press night to Philip Rham as Rogers, who found himself having to perch upon a folding chair that had just broken.)
As Alan finds himself on the receiving end of Diana's genuine amorous attentions, he appeals to the loyalty of his new-found comrades-in-arms for protection. The whiff of misogyny in the air is at least partially counteracted by the presence of the good and true Jacqueline, but the focus has by now shifted decisively from the Diana-driven romance plot to the masculine camaraderie of the three fellows.

No-one would claim that French Without Tears makes greatly trenchant statements, but Luscombe succeeds in identifying and bringing out that additional undercurrent, just enough to redeem this from being an antiquated light comedy production for its own sake.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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