"Days of wine and roses"
by Avril Silk for remotegoat on 20/09/16

Aged ten or so, in the company of my clever, culture-loving mum, I stumbled upon the section of the public library devoted to play scripts. It was love at first sight. A form of writing that focussed on what people said and did, with a blessed minimum of description. Terence Rattigan’s ‘French without Tears’ was my first encounter and marked the start of a lifelong passion. I played all the parts in unwatched one-girl productions until, reluctantly, I had to return the book. In common with many others, I deserted Rattigan for darker, more dangerous writing – my next port of call was Eugene O’Neill’s ‘Long Day’s Journey into Night.’

Last night, at Exeter’s Northcott Theatre, I was enchanted to revisit ‘French without Tears’ thanks to the English Touring Theatre. As vast chunks of half-remembered dialogue swam to the surface of my memory, I found myself wondering what I had understood then, and what had sailed gloriously over my head. Brian’s cheerful whoring, perhaps? International tensions in the build-up to World War Two? Whatever I missed, even then I completely got the main, timeless dynamic. In the red corner: young, superficially confident, blokes, camply comfortable around each other, absorbed in arrogantly conquering/changing the world - whether it be through the Diplomatic Service; writing a novel; joining the military; forming a band and indulging in recreational drugs – cleaving together in the face of that most mysterious and challenging, unconquerable adversary – Woman. And in the blue corner: young women, absorbed, thanks to social, genetic, hormonal and economic pressures, with finding a mate. However much times change, there’s a window, perhaps smaller now, when this ancient battle continues to be enacted. The protagonists might be much younger, and the route to sex shorter, but the dance continues.

Rattigan’s play appears to be a study of Bright Young Things romping towards matrimony, but the joy of his writing, the reason he deserved to be revived, is that he captures perfectly what Ursula le Guin describes so beautifully. ‘The dance is always danced above the hollow place, above the terrible abyss.’ Last night I enjoyed wonderful theatre. This morning I woke to the terrible news of the bombing of an aid convoy in Syria. In the implacable face of reality, no wonder we make merry when we can. Paul Miller’s direction exemplifies the light touch, capturing the sparkling surface without ignoring the underlying darkness. However close his characters come to the stereotypes of coltish, camp young men; femme fatales, blue stockings and crusty old curmudgeons, they do not slip into caricature. This is an intelligent depiction of the dance above the abyss, and all the performers beguiled and engaged us. The culinary equivalent of a perfectly cooked and delicately seasoned soufflé springs to mind. It might look as light as air and taste divine, but it takes immense skill and hard work.

Simon Daw’s elegant, spacious set enabled my companion to date the play accurately - thanks to a period-perfect bust on the mantelpiece. Holly Rose’s subtle costumes (even and especially that of the preposterous Greek Evzone complete with red pom-poms and sock suspenders) were a delight to the eye and enriched the comedy. Talented composer David Shrubsole’s music was evocative.

Each character was beautifully portrayed. Again that blend of enormous fun mixed with intelligence and hidden depths. Joe Eyre has the particularly challenging role of Kit; the lovelorn, colt-like young man who moves from hopeless infatuation with Diana (Florence Roberts) to something more complex and enduring with Jacqueline (Beatriz Romilly). Perhaps nowadays Diana would see that her beauty and sex appeal were not her only assets, and Beatriz would realise that friendship and love are not incompatible, but becoming yourself, knowing yourself, is still a difficult task for a woman, despite feminism, economic advances and greater diversity. Florence Roberts and Beatriz Romilly appeared to portray polar opposites, but their excellent performances revealed profound similarities. And frankly, Florence could give us all lessons in how to work the room.

Ziggy Heath’s first professional stage role as the complicated writer Alan gives an intimation of triumphs to come in what I hope will be a deservedly wonderful career. His well-rounded performance was witty and assured. Commander Rogers was his male counterpart, and Tim Delap delighted the audience with his gruff monosyllabic responses and his bluff no-nonsense approach. I particularly appreciated that Rogers, Kit and Alan, played drunks without overdoing it.

All the characters are allowed to develop, and that is how caricatures are avoided. As Brian, Alex Large appeared robustly cheerful and straight-forward… scraping together the money to pay for the services of Chi-Chi and Colette and entirely eschewing the charms of Diana and Jacqueline. Nevertheless, you sensed that the boy would give way to a likeable man who would respond to adversity with decisive clarity.

Alistair Toovey, as Diana’s brother Kenneth, was struggling with his French lessons, his sexuality and his relationship with his sister. Given that Alistair conveyed all that with a minimum of lines and a maximum of acting skill, he is to be commended.

David Whitworth thoroughly relished his role as irascible Monsieur Maingot, the fierce task-master who had me brushing off my school-girl French and trying to keep up. Then he increased our enjoyment when he appeared in a kilt and did a twirl or two, twinkling away, (nevertheless reminding us that in another part of the forest, Hitler was on the rise).

I look forward to seeing Arianne Gray (Marianne) in future productions. The English Touring Theatre productions are highlights in regional theatre.

This link is well worth following for further insights into this most enjoyable play.

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