So I've been writing about Terence Rattigan's plays for twenty-five years now and what I love is that he still has the capacity to surprise me. There are plays of his that I would rank among the finest plays of the last century and it would be fair to say that he wrote some plays I don't care for at all. I'll be very honest and tell you that I've always secretly thought French Without Tears to be a very interesting play but one that was rather dated and probably not actually very funny.
I am so wrong. Paul Miller's revival of the play at the Orange Tree is deliriously funny from beginning to end and achieves this not by imposing anything on Rattigan's words but simply - as all the good productions of the last 25 years have done - by stripping away the period trappings, keeping only what is necessary for the play to make sense, and finding in its rhythms and beautiful observations of character and language what is true and telling. And what emerges from this fresh, vigorous, pacy production is a very, very funny play indeed. Funny from the opening lines to the very last with constant genuine great gags throughout. Rattigan shuffles all his characters, putting them in every possible combination to wring every last drop of laughter from them. Miller and his young cast do not miss a note - the play is just a riot.
If you don't know it - and why should you? - the play is set in France in the home of Monsieur Maingot, to which a group of Englishmen have been sent in order to be taught French. The problem, if it is a problem, is Diana, the sister of one of the younger men. She is, as one character puts it, 'rather fast'. She's a promiscuous man-eater and the men are terrified of her to the same extent that they desire her. She begins the play attached to Kit but when Commander Rogers arrives she decides she must have him too. When confronted, she admits or pretends - we can't tell - that it's always been Alan she wants. The play ends with Diana threatening to go back to London, in pursuit of Alan who has decided to throw away a potential career in the Diplomatic Service in favour of becoming a writer (this was indeed Rattigan's own wish).
The play shows Rattigan's theatrical influences; there are Chekhovian moments (as the characters imagine what the world a hundred years hence will think of them) and there are frankly Zolian moments too (as they speculate on whether human beings are really just animals). There are moments of great farce but there are also moments of real tenderness, particularly around the character of Jacqueline, M Maingot's daughter who is, for much of the play, silently in love with Kit. You sense, even here, a playwright exploring his own talents, roaming the stage finding unexpected depths, moments of sudden intensity and feeling.
The Orange Tree turns out to be the perfect place for French Without Tears, for three reasons. First, it's a very intimate space, which gives the actors a chance to play the scenes lightly and quickly. Second, it's in the round, so nothing needs to be cheated out front and the playing can be truthful and intelligent. And third, because we surround the action, the theatre becomes a pressure cooker in which the pattern of tension and laughter is explosive; last night the theatre boomed with laughter all the way through.
And there's something else interesting about this production. Paul Miller has directed the play before, for English Touring Theatre, in 2007, which I saw on tour when it came to the Richmond Theatre, just round the corner from the Orange Tree. It was a terrific production, robust but fluent. In that larger theatre, though, its energy seemed harder to maintain; it was always at risk of dissipating. Here the humour catches light but what also became much clearer and sharper was Rattigan's careful exploration of male sexuality and, in particular, the way the heterosexuality of these characters shade into homosociality or something even more profoundly homosexual. It is, without effort, a very queer play.
Aficionados of classic-era Doctor Who will remember the great scene from The Ribos Operation in which a space traveller called Unstoffe is thrown together with the disgraced heretic Binro. Binro was once a scientist who believed that the planet of Ribos revolved around the sun, which produced its long seasons of Ice Time and Sun Time, and that the stars were not ice crystals but suns around which revolved other planets. For his pains, he was punished and his hands were broken. When Unstoffe tells him that he is from one of those other worlds and that Binro is right in all he has said, Binro is able to die happy. In 1994, I wrote my introduction to the Nick Hern Books edition of the play and, reading it then, I was very struck by the patterning of camp humour, transvestism, gender confusions and general queerness, as well as the very witty observation of male fears of desire. They formed the basis for my analysis. To be honest, I am not sure if I thought this was a performable interpretation or merely a textual one. A month ago, as I revisited my argument to write a short article for the Orange Tree's programme, I was genuinely unsure whether maybe I'd just misread the play. Tonight I feel a bit like Binro the Heretic to discover that I was right. French Without Tears is one of the great queer plays of the twentieth century wrapped up in one of the great comedies of the twentieth century.
Miller has emphasised these elements with great subtlety and discretion. The transvestism of the Casino night (either side of the interval) is given full absurd value; Alan and Kit's confusions about sexuality, particularly in Alan's description of the perfect woman ('she will have all of the masculine virtues and none of the feminine vices') are allowed to resonate, and Kenneth Lake, Diana's younger brother, is allowed to have a sweet, moving, unacknowledged crush on Alan through the length of the play. The cast are mostly pretty new to the stage. but they create an immaculately balanced structure: the mild hysteria of Alex Bhat's sardonic Alan is countered by Williams Belchambers's Commander Rogers, calm and mature, with a hint of the juvenile. Joe Eyre' Kit Neilan is a high-intensity performance, as he whirls ever more in the paradoxes of love with style, which contrasts with Tom Hanson's Brian Curtis, all affable cynicism and relentlessly unaccented French. Diana Lake is, in some ways, a rather unforgiving part; she's less fully written than the men, but Genevieve Gaunt (pictured) fills her out, flirtatious, elegant, cheeky, and clearly smarter than all the men put together. Gaunt's confidence with the role released the humour in the play's most basic mechanisms. By the end she could just enter the room at the right time to get a laugh. And just when you might think the play's lightness could pall, Sarah Winter's Jacqueline created an intensity of emotion that gave the whole play and production heart.
Binro the Heretic was played by Timothy Bateson who had the distinction of being the first Lucky in Waiting for Godot on the British stage, taking the role at the Arts Theatre in 1955, in the production directed by Peter Hall, one of the productions that announced the change in British theatrical fashions that made Rattigan seem old-fashioned. Now we know how to get rid of any old-fashioned taint to Rattigan's work: treat his plays as serious proper plays with persistent and sophisticated things to tell us about who we are. This is the best Rattigan production I've seen since the National's After the Dance. It's staggeringly good. It's riotously funny. Eighty years later, Rattigan's first big hit is a hit again.