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Jul 26, 2012
04:00 AMTalk about Arts
Shaw Festival: "French Without Tears"
Photo by David Cooper, courtesy of the Shaw Festival.
Martin Happer as Lieutenant-Commander Rogers and Robin Evan Willis as Diana Lake in "French Without Tears".
A seemingly frothy play, Sir Terence Rattigan’s earliest professional effort is given a robust, rousing outing at the Shaw Festival this year. The play was first performed in 1936, during the period "between the wars".
It has much deeper historical and emotional signficance, yet it is easy and appropriate to enjoy it on its face—a funny, charming, occasionally maddening comedy of romantic and sexual play among high class young-ish Brits, doing what they do while supposedly studying French—fulfilling the requirement of learning a foreign language in order to enter the diplomatic service.
Set in “Miramar, a villa in a small seaside town on the west coast of France,” the play opens to find several young men, waking up and getting ready to begin their day. We learn that Alan (crisply played by Ben Sanders) is the smart, ambitious one; Brian (Craig Pike) the messy, fun one; Kenneth—nicknamed Babe—the young pet (Billy Lake), and, eventually, that Kit (Wade Bogert-O’Brien) is the handsome lunk.
The femme fatale alternatley bewitching and vexing them all is Diana (Robin Evan Willis); she carries a strong conviction that her best and most valuable quality is the ability to make men fall in love with her. She doesn’t hesitate to apply this quality.
Running the villa and providing French lessons is the Maingot family—pere et fille, and their housemaid, Marianne.
Homespun, clog-wearing daughter Jacqueline, called “Jack” by the young men, (Julie Martell) is the polar opposite to willowy, demanding Diana. Jack is willing to bend the rules and bring her favorites fresh coffee even after breakfast is over, while Diana times her entrances in revealing bathing costumes to impress new arrivals.
Funny business ensues, as Diana plies her stock-in-trade, first stringing poor Kit along as her love-toy, then switching her affections to the older yet still appallingly easy-to-woo Lietuenant-Commander Rogers (ably played by the large and squarely built Martin Happer). A new arrival, the military man has been at sea for so long he apparently needs merely a glance from this siren to fall prey.
Meanwhile, Alan—the most autobiographical of the characters—provides acid narration and insight into the minds of the young men. Notes from the playbill inform us that Rattigan, who was 24 when he wrote this confection, having recently completed his own education at Harrow and Oxford, was an out gay man. He was much more sophisticated when it came to relationships then other men his age, and able to take an arms’ length view of the silly goings-on between the sexes.
During the course of the two acts, there are love-triangles, secrets revealed, and drunken alliances formed. Of course, being a comedy, it wraps up fine for everyone—watch out though, it will leave you with thoughts, provoked.
"French Without Tears", by Terence Ratigan, directed by Kate Lynch. Through September 15 in the Royal George Theater, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.