The Miser is a romp which with slapstick, fancy dress, audience participation, deliberate anachronisms and frequent silliness presents Moliere’s masterpiece (heavily adapted) in a context which is part stand-up, part farce and totally manic. The strapline over this production is “Moliere’s Classic Comedy” though in fact the production owes as much to “Blackadder”, “Little Britain” and other modern satirical TV series as it does to 17th Century French drama.
Comic theatre ranges from the subtle verbal wit, and satire, of a Coward or an Ayckbourn via the more action-related humour of situation comedy or farce to the ultimate belly laugh world of pantomime. It’s a continuum, rather than there being distinct categories. And the two sides of drama, symbolised by the masks of tragedy and comedy, have always overlapped. There is comedy in Macbeth; there is tragedy in “Much Ado about Nothing”. Back in 1991 the National Theatre presented a famous version of The Miser which one reviewer (Michael Billington) later described as bringing out “…the darker implications of this study of pathological greed”. The tragedy within the comedy if you like. That aspect was also the focus of the satire in contemporaneous productions in Moliere’s times. However in this new production by Sean Foley and Phil Porter at the Garrick there is little pathos and you feel neither repulsed by Harpagon (the Miser) nor particularly sympathetic towards any of the other characters. This is partly because all of the characters are almost cartoonish in their portrayal with their costumes (especially) being unrealistic and their behaviour beyond mannered and parodic.
Most productions of The Miser present it as satirical comedy bordering on farce – in this new production, it is farce bordering on pantomime. David Garrick, after whom the Garrick Theatre is, of course, named, once said “If they won’t come to Lear and Hamlet I must give them Harlequin”. And later Grimaldi expanded Harlequin into a distinctive clown figure. In this production of The Miser we have two modern-day Grimaldis in Griff Ryhs Jones (as Harpagon) and Lee Mack (as the miser’s servant) – both comic performers of distinction.
The versatile Ryhs Jones last appeared in a French farce more than twenty years ago in Peter Hall’s memorable production of Feydeau’s “An Absolute Turkey”. Now in his sixties (the same age as Harpagon) he has lost none of his energy and his comic timing is perfect. Mack is making his stage debut in the play though his TV Sitcom appearances have given him extensive experience as a comic actor and his success as a stand-up is good grounding for the engagements with the audience which pepper this production. His Maître Jacques is part himself and, I felt, part Tony Robinson’s Baldrick.
The “fourth wall” is breached from the start as Mack does a bit of comedy with candles and engages with the audience as he does it. Moliere’s own productions also breached the fourth wall – indeed the playwright used the term himself. Pantomime, of course, does this all the time and even invites audience members onto the stage. This doesn’t (quite) happen in The Miser though the amount of talking to and banter with the audience is considerable throughout. It is well done and not inappropriate – especially as it happens from the start. But the extent of it, along with the uber-farcical nature of the rest of the production, does mean that the writer/adapters and the director clearly resolved not to try and explore the “darker implications” of the work at all. Mathew Horne plays Valére fairly straight – and very well and both Katy Wix (as a smouldering Elise) and the intriguing Ellie White as Marianne are also excellent.
Most of the conventions of Pantomime are present in The Miser. The audience engagement, the bizarre costumes, contemporary references (including to “Sports Direct” as a terrible employer), modern language, ostentatious over-acting at times, musical interludes, a man dressed as a woman, funny accents, anachronisms (including a reference to the Arc de Triomphe qualified by the comment that it won’t be built for 150 years) and so on. Such a production requires split-second timing and this production never falters (well, hardly ever). Garrick gave his audiences Harlequin which did not require them to do much more than sit back and enjoy. But he returned to Shakespeare in due course though it seems that the theatre with his name will be focusing on pure entertainment for the time being with The Miser and upcoming productions of Gangsta Granny and Young Frankenstein!
Review by Paddy Briggs
As true feelings and identities are revealed will Harpagon allow his children to follow their heart, or will his love of gold prove all-consuming? Passion and purse strings go head to head in this rip-roaring comedy, by France’s greatest dramatist.
This major revival is directed by Sean Foley (The Painkiller, The Ladykillers, Jeeves and Wooster), with further star casting to be announced. Book now to be among the very first to see this major revival.
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