THE BELLE VUE
Northcott Theatre, Exeter/touring
Opened 20 November, 1996

Nick Philippou's last couple of productions for the Actors Touring Company, The Modern Husband and Miss Julie, have shown both his stylistic strengths as a director and his unfortunate tendency to shoehorn occasionally inappropriate productions into that style characterised by slightly over-articulated, savagely queeny performances, it demonstrates a gentle but insistent pull towards the darker side of "Queer" theatre.

On this occasion, Philippou's perspective comes over as well matched to the British première (after some 70 years) of Ödön von Horváth's Zur Schönen Aussicht, here renamed The Belle Vue in Kenneth McLeish's sharp, no-nonsense translation. The hotel of the title is dilapidated to the point of dereliction, its trio of staff catering to a single guest Ada, a noblewoman of a certain age, whom Ann Firbank makes a glorious mixture of the original Norma Desmond and very late Bette Davis. The arrival of a couple of other guests both played (with sometimes dizzyingly rapid quick-changes) by John Dicks adds spice to the proceedings, but it is the appearance of the manager's spurned ex-lover Christine that generates real turmoil as she is first rejected, then claimed by each man in turn.

As McLeish points out, the hotel stands for Germany itself, tottering and financially uncertain after the Great War, still functioning only because its officials refrain from explicitly accusing each other of previous hinted-at enormities; the tension between Ada and Christine, which grows more naked as matters proceed, is that between a particular kind of past and a shadowy future. In Philippou's production, von Horváth's black tragi-comedy has the hazy semi-logic of a dream in which allusions are made and partly revealed before another twist supplants that particular strand of meaning. The only constant is money, which both in itself and in terms of the squalid negotiations surrounding it comes to seem like an especially pernicious drug.

The play is here subtitled A Tart Comedy, referring both to Christine (and, indeed, to Max the waiter the prettily sinister Christopher Staines) and to the bitter, acidic flavour of the piece. The latter ingredient does not bite as sharply as it could, but in the trade-off between clarifying the subtext and evoking an overhanging impression of moral smog, Philippou and McLeish have at least broken even on the deal.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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