Brighton Fringe 2011
Paris 1945. Christiane waits for a ticket to England that will reunite her with her fiancé. While she waits, this irrepressible mademoiselle recounts the love story between her – an eccentric, acutely-myopic Parisian – and a tongue-tied English teacher from Staffordshire. A tender, comic portrayal of one woman’s experience of love and war.
The moment that Caroline Horton totters into the space, clutching 5 variously sized suitcases, it is clear that we are in the hands of a true mistress of physical theatre.
At once funny and engaging, but not without the occasional myopically stern stare, the character of Christiane conjures us into her fellows waiting in a queue to leave France for England at the end of the war. It’s a wonderful device for engaging us in the young woman’s story as she comes across immediately as a delightful companion with whom to while away the next hour. (And all with an impeccable Parisian accent.) She then starts her story of why it is that she’s waiting…and waiting….and waiting…and why it is so important that she gets to England from her native Paris.
The fact that the following tale is in essence a very simple one of a young couple falling in love, being separated by war and finally getting the chance to get back together again, makes what we are sharing somehow more poignant. The angel is in the detail – if the narrative were more complicated, the astutely observed characters would be swamped by plot. What we are offered instead is the chance to relish a number of different people that she encounters on her initial travels that take us from a pompous eye specialist, via a young woman straight from Betjeman with annihilating tennis shots, to the ‘beanpole’ admirer who will become Chrissie’s fiancé.
The following episodes are similarly bedecked with a fabulous variety of folk, each adhering to sympathetically observed period characteristics that never fall into parody. Horton’s timing is superb throughout and the individual mannerisms she squeezes herself into are hilarious.
This detail is focussed still further with use of scene changes, revealed purely by the opening of a new suitcase; – one depicting the flowery hills and white fluffy clouds of an English summer, another the immediately obvious silhouetted outline of the Parisian skyline. And, further into the story, balloons that so simply signify celebration, then are popped in the soundscape of war. And a letter that is taken from a bag in such a way as to set off a musical box – all so attentive to the minutiae of creating magical images from so little.
And then, when we feel satisfied that the story is coming to an end, Horton just eases in a gentle twist. It would be churlish of me to reveal this (and she has generously alluded to it at points through the play), but this is done in such a way as to tantalise those who have picked up the clues and enchant those who haven’t. It’s not often that I am moved close to tears in the theatre, but you could hear the collective sigh of recognition as the pieces slotted neatly into place.
This is the type of performance that anyone with a love of theatre, anyone with a love of humanity and certainly anyone with a love of life should see. From start to end I was entranced by this character who was so down to earth yet such a fabulous cartoon in the intricately observed Da Vinci sense. I felt almost transported (again, something that I rarely feel in the theatre) into a Mary Poppins world where reality and magic move side by side. But instead of deteriorating into Disney slush, there’s a continual sense of the harsh reality of a life occupied by Nazis and the constant dread of a telegram that would explode all myth of a loving future.
This ability to touch lightly on both these areas is a joy to watch and I strongly recommend others to drop everything and catch the last night of this show.
Sadly Brighton is that last venue in Horton’s 3 month tour, but I’ll be first in the queue for the next offering from this highly entertaining and talented performer…and should the person I find myself standing next to be the fabulous Christiane, so much the better.