Watching this spirited revival of Terence Rattigan’s early comedy makes you wonder what the author would have made of the posh chaps’ farce now unfolding for real on the Disunited Kingdom’s political stage.
Never mind for the moment that we are in the living room of a French crammer in the tense years just before the outbreak of the Second War; here’s a clutch of Oxbridge grads with aspirations to the topness of a life in the diplomatic service.
Only connoisseurs of the type, as Rattigan was, will read significance into the fact that these Young People are products of Harrow (his own old school) rather than Eton but, as so much else in this deceptively canny study of social and sexual malaise, it’s there if you want it.
Diana is also there if you want her. With the exception of the old teacher’s daughter, she’s one of only two chapesses about and she exploits this scarcity value with all the needy energy at her disposal. Kit, Alan and the slightly older Commander Rogers spend their time in various stages of rivalry, lust and disdain for the girl’s too obvious virtues, but if they share one response to her it is that of incomprehension.
Hence of terror also. They’re here to learn a foreign language which will make them more professionally, more globally viable and yet it is the grammar of love’s constructions, never mind its expression, which leaves them tonguetied and teacherless. In this respect the 25-year-old Rattigan’s study of a certain English trainee manhood is a kind of sitcom avant la lettre.
In the context of such Wodehousean haplessness Commander Rogers seems to have a certain swagger which Kit and Alan, a wouldbe novelist, have reason to envy. Yet his competence is all of marshalling men and keeping things shipshape.
Like countless Rattigan men and, perhaps by contagion, Rattigan women, this approach to human intercourse can only be conducted when emotions are stowed safely below deck. Or rather, not safely at all; the damned things shift and lurch and threaten to sink us all. This is a world from which the faux buffoonery of a Boris Johnson is not such a distant descendant.
For these reasons and more, This makes French Without Tears interesting not just in its own right but as the precursor of such masterpieces as The Winslow Boy, The Browning Version and, above all The Deep Blue Sea, in which the irreconcilable differences between the English head and the English heart are laid bare as if by a forensic divorce lawyer.
With all these easy benefits of hindsight, seeing this play reminds you why Rattigan wrote as he did; how he deployed the resource known, though after his time, as emotional literacy; the ways in which he turned to positive account his class’s habit of saying one thing when they mean another. Hence the language problem speaks of a greater barrier and the gathering threats in the continent (bloody Europe again, hey?) echo an internal conflict. There are, or were, things whose name you dare not speak; why else did Noel Coward inject, so to speak, drugs rather than homosexuality into The Vortex?
Rattigan did live to see the start of his plays’ reemergence from the dominance of Kitchen Sink and the staging of his work at such places as The King’s Head Islington, one of The Orange Tree’s few enduring contemporaries of The Fringe. He would surely have approved of the OT director Paul Miller’s vigorous handling of this youthful piece, with its running sense of a college out of control and a continent going the same way. Splendid, troubled energy from Joe Eyre’s Kit and Ziggy Heath’s Alan, confronted by Tim Delap’s hilariously clipped Commander Rogers.
Disarming tenderness from Beatriz Romilly as Jacqueline Maingot and rich hopelessness from David Whitworth as the professeur who understands nothing and can explain even less. Can’t even speak English, for heaven’s sake.
Review by Alan Franks
After a group of young men arrive at Monsieur Maingot’s French school for the summer to cram for the Diplomatic exam, their concentration is disrupted by beautiful visitor Diana Lake. Quelle surprise, they must learn another new language: girls.
At first, it seems pretty simple. Kit loves Diana and she loves him. And Bill. Oh, and darling Alan, of course. Then there’s Jack: she’s in love too. Meanwhile, Babe conceals his feelings… Not so simple after all.
Terence Rattigan’s sparkling 1936 comedy was the first smash-hit success from the writer of The Deep Blue Sea, After the Dance and The Winslow Boy.
Estimated running time 2 hours 15 minutes (including interval)
An Orange Tree Theatre and English Touring Theatre co-production
Following its return to the Orange Tree, in Autumn 2016 French Without Tears will tour:
13 Sep – 24 Sep 2016
Northcott Theatre, Exeter
27 Sep – 1 Oct 2016
4 Oct – 6 Oct 2016
The Queen’s Theatre, Barnstaple
11 Oct – 15 Oct 2016
The Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham
18 Oct – 22 Oct 2016
25 Oct – 29 Oct 2016
Oldham Coliseum Theatre
1 Nov – 5 Nov 2016
Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry
8 Nov – 12 Nov 2016
16 Nov – 19 Nov 2016
Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield