Three shows that form the latest repertory season from the Acting Gymnasium run under the banner heading ‘Camden Festival l’Humour’, taking translations of French comedy plays and putting them on the London stage.
Having seen a previous run of The Misanthrope, it was interesting to see how a (somewhat) different cast would handle the material. Here, a darker undertone was struck, at least in part due to a more grounded performance from Sunil Patel’s Alceste, the misanthrope of the play’s title. On second viewing, the choices made when using prose in certain places and verse in others aren’t clearly delineated – which is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s not as if the so-called working-class characters are relegated to speaking only in prose.
It’s not the easiest of productions to comprehend who is whom straight away, though in any event, few characters come out well. The modern setting allows for the appropriate use of chart music, which helps today’s audiences connect with the play. At the performance I saw, the comedy elements didn’t come across as well as they could have done, resulting in relatively sober reactions from the audience. Dubois (Tyrone James Wheatley) came across as a breath of fresh air in a fairly oppressive atmosphere. This interpretation of the role involves a display of the ‘tics’ associated with Tourette syndrome: cue ‘eff, cee and effing cee’, but done convincingly.
A Flea in Her Ear makes a departure for the Acting Gymnasium’s productions – or at least the ones I’ve had the privilege of seeing over the last few years. Having established something of a reputation of condensing plays to two hours or even less, there’s a paradox in this show being two and a half hours (including interval) and yet considerably faster-paced than previous shows. The play’s physical nature practically demands precise timing.
I must admit the set (Sonoko Obuchi) caught me by surprise, not because there was anything inherently wrong with it, but rather by pure virtue of the fact that it was there. I was accustomed to the borderline ‘black box’ or even ‘poor theatre’ set. This worked reasonably well when Acting Gymnasium was adapting ‘Shakespeare for a modern audience’, as they had done in previous seasons. But this was the sort of theatrical farce that called for (by definition) quick exits and entrances, and it was pleasing to see an obvious lived-in house and then, later on, the rather suggestive (ahem) hotel.
The performance I saw came at a time of resignations and appointments in the UK Government – not knowing who some of the parliamentarians are, a fellow audience member and I agreed that it was not so much a case of ‘who’s who’ but ‘who’s that?’ This play, involving multiple counts of mistaken identity, had several characters trying to figure out ‘who’s that?’ – Ferallion (Thomas Witcomb), the general manager of the Hotel Coq d’Or, realises quite late on that there is a distinction between Monsieur Chandebise (Michael Claff), a man wealthy enough to have household staff (back in the days when domestic service was a predominant occupation in Western Europe), and one of his own employees, Poche, played skilfully by the same actor.
Camille (James Bruce), Chandebise’s nephew, has, for reasons made clear in the narrative, indistinct speech. Its portrayal may be slightly distasteful for contemporary audiences – though some in the audience chortled heartily regardless – but at least Dr Finache (Danylo Zaczkiewicz) has a viable solution. Raymonde, Madame Chandebise (Tracy Coogan) convinces as the paranoid yet hypocritical wife. Schwarz (Thea Kramer), a Prussian dominatrix, appears only periodically but consistently cracks the whip, though Hominedes (Andre Pinto) steals the show for me, the Spaniard husband of Lucienne (Hanna Luna) whose outward expressions of jealousy and desire for revenge were, in a darkly humorous way, a delight to witness. Scream after scream permeates proceedings, but this more expressive kind of play suits the company more than the subtler productions of previous seasons.
Cyrano de Bergerac, or at least the Acting Gymnasium’s version of it, comes in at just under three hours. But a full version would be substantially even longer – a somewhat abridged version like this could have been, done badly, death by a thousand cuts. Thankfully, following proceedings wasn’t a problem here, and while some of the dialogue was very poetic (as befits the narrative), it also meant some of the very same lines were quite abstract. Cyrano (Sunil Patel), a poet and playwright, attributes his creative talent at least in part to his insecurity. Ashamed of his physical appearance, mostly because of his absurdly long nose, he admires Roxane (a wonderfully nuanced Lina Cherrat).
But Roxane has strong feelings instead for Baron Christian De Neuvillette (Amir Ebrahim), who has good looks but does not possess Cyrano’s way with words.
Thus, Cyrano agrees with Christian that he will write a love letter to Roxane, as though we were Christian. One thing leads to another, and although the limitations of staging in this production means a balcony scene has had to be reimagined to an extent, the comedy value of the scene is still there. It’s a large cast, with several actors making the most of the relatively few lines they are given: yes, they ham it up, but that only adds to the enjoyment of a play where there’s silliness abound.
Overall, then, there’s something for almost everyone in this eclectic trio of French plays. A passionate and engaging delight.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Directed by Gavin McAlinden
Set Design/Styling – Sonoko OBUCHI
Lighting Design – Callum Excell
Costumes – Holly Causer
Set Construction – Pete Johnson
Sound & Light Operator – Floki Snorrason
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