|Robin Evan Willis as Diana Lake, Michael Ball as Monsieur Maingot and Ben Sanders as Alan Howard in French Without Tears. Photo by Emily Cooper|
French Without Tears is an entertaining play by Terence Rattigan that premiered in London in 1936. Last year was the centenary of Rattigan’s birth (1911-1977) and a number of his plays were produced in England to mark the event. The Shaw Festival is tipping its hat, albeit belatedly, with this production that is now playing at the Royal George Theatre.
Director Kate Lynch has assembled a good cast and gives a light and entertaining account of the play that gets most of the laughs. For the non-bilingual some of the jokes that are based on mangled translations and abuse of the French language fall flat and some of the private-school English of the students goes by us occasionally without making its mark, but no real harm is done to the production.
Five young, upper-crust Englishmen are learning French in a villa located in a seaside town on the east coast of France sometime in the 1930’s. That is a pretty civilized milieu for wit and romance and some politics, if you will.
We have a rather crotchety tutor in Monsieur Maingot (Michael Ball) who insists that the students speak only French. The bearded Ball looks gruff and menacing in an amusing way and does a very good job in the role. But he is only a sideline.
We are more interested in the Honourable Alan Howard (Ben Sanders), the son of a diplomat who is learning French in order to follow in his father’s footsteps. But his real interest is in writing. There is also Kit Neilan (Wade Bogert-O’Brien), a clean-cut, intelligent young Englishman on the verge of manhood.
We also have a new arrival, a somewhat less polished version of the above-two gentlemen, in the person of Lieutenant Commander Rogers of the Royal Navy (Martin Happer).
They are inert ingredients, of course, until you add Diana (Robin Evan Willis) to the mixture and stir.
She is a beautiful blonde who causes immediate and violent commotion and turmoil in male hormones. Less politely, men have the hots for her. Diana is no mere bystander to these effects; she is a sex magnet who collects lovers as if they were souvenirs in a gift shop. She has Kit under her belt and goes after the Commander and then pursues and conquers the slightly aloof Alan. In what can only be described as a completely natural result (at least in the theatre), the men end up fighting over her.
There are branches to the boys-meet-blonde plot including the presence of an attractive but sensible young lady named Jacqueline, the daughter of Monsieur Maingot (played by Julie Martell), Diana’s rather dim brother Billy (Kenneth Lake) and Brian (Craig Pike), another student.
The plot gets a bit muddled around the middle. There is only so much mileage that you can get from the conniving Diana’s hopping from lover to lover. Rattigan throws in preparations for a costume ball where we get Monsieur Maingot decked out in a Scottish kilt and Kit clad in a Greek kilt, the fustanella, with the inevitable jokes about it.
It is a well-disciplined production. The accents are acceptable if not always clear. The actors deserve commendation from the gruff Commander of Happer to the blustering lover of Bogart-O’Brien. Evan Willis looks and acts the part of the siren and they all provide a pleasant theatrical experience.
The play does have a punch line around the much-anticipated arrival of Lord Heybrook (Dylan Rumsey). Diana’s lovers want to pass her to the newcomer and let themselves off the hook. Unfortunately, Lynch is a bit careless in outfitting his lordship and the joke almost falls flat.
French Without Tears by Terence Rattigan opened on May 25 and will run in repertory until September 15, 2012 at the Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.