Monday, May 28, 2012
FRENCH WITHOUT TEARS
Special to TorSun
28 MAY 2012
Pictured: Martin Happer, Robin Evan Willis
NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE — As children, most of us learned that good things come to those who wait — and it’s a lesson that might bear remembering for anyone who finds himself trapped in the Shaw Festival’s Royal George Theatre, watching a performance of Terence Rattigan’s 1936 breakout hit, FRENCH WITHOUT TEARS, which opened here Saturday. And finally, in the wake of that remembrance, it all comes down to two questions: How long should one wait? And just how worthwhile is the stuff for which we are waiting?
Set in the living room/study of a sea-side villa on the west coast of France in the mid-’30s, FRENCH WITHOUT TEARS revolves largely around a group of young British youth who have put their private schoolboy days behind them and fled across the channel to study the French language, under the tutelage of the curmudgeonly Monsieur Maingot (played by the increasingly curmudgeonly Michael Ball). But while Kenneth Lake (Billy Lake), Brian Curtis (Craig Pike), Alan Howard (Ben Sanders) and Kit Neilan (Wade Bogert-O’Brien) are at best perfunctory students of the French language, they all are interested, in varying degrees, in conjugating verbs with the opposite sex.
In this case, that obsession is heightened by the presence of young Mr. Lake’s sister Diana (Robin Evan Willis), a young woman determined to test the full mettle of her sexual powers. As the play opens, she is working her wiles on Kit, but with the arrival of Lt. Commander Rogers (Martin Happer), she quickly refocuses her high beams on the more mature military man, leaving Kit fuming. As a sidebar, it seems that M. Maingot’s young daughter (Julie Martell) is also in love with Kit, leaving Curtis to try his hand with lesser local girls, while Howard contents himself with minding everyone else’s business.
It is not, it must be said, riveting stuff for anyone with even a passing knowledge of current rom-coms, but frankly, it could be a lot more engaging than director Kate Lynch makes in the first act of this tedious little love story. Not only does she never really manage to achieve the requisite sense of rambunctious camaraderie that would mark this as a believable pride of randy young men, she is further hampered by the fact that as costumed and played, Willis’ Diana is far too mature and predatory. In fact, thanks to designer William Schmuck, even the otherwise excellent Martell comes across as more cougarly than one suspects the playwright intended.
Happily, after a first act that throbs with all the passion of an annual dramatic offering at a British boys’ school, Lynch and her cast find a rhythm of sorts in a second act that begins with a drunken late-night encounter between Sanders, Happer and Bogert-O’Brien that actually suggests something awfully close to chemistry between the three of them. It isn’t, it must be said, enough to save the entire production, but it does generate enough heat to carry a play and its audience to a happy, if not wildly successful conclusion, despite the dated nature of the material.