Brighton Year-Round 2022
Directed by Belinda Lang, Designed by Fotni Dimou, Lighting Designer Matthew Eagland, Sound Design Andy Graham, Associate Designer Alice Wordsworth, Casting Director Ginny Schiller CDG.
Production Manager Gemma Brooks, Costumer Supervisor Joan Hughes, Props Supervisor Lizzie Frankl for Propworks (Associate Kate Dowling), Production and UK Tour Relights Liam Cleary, Production Carpenter William Gibson. CSM Paul Ferris, DSM and Sound Operator William Buckenham, ASM Olivia Saint, Wardrobe Katie Gape.
Till March 25t
You’ll be out early. Despite its title, being in real time, this straight-through two-handed scintillator ends at 9.20. Get your drinks in first.
Griff Rhys-Jones and the supremely versatile Janie Dee star in director and adaptor Belinda Lang’s version of Gérald Sibleyras’s and frequent collaborator Jean Dell’s 2006 An Hour and a Half Late at the Theatre Royal this week.
You might know Sibleyras through Tom Stoppard’s 2005 version of Heroes (not the original title) from 2003. Sibleyras is the third well-known contemporary French dramatist, after Yasmin Reza (Art, God of Carnage), and Florian Zeller (The Father, The Son). Being a multiple-Moliere-prize nominated comic writer, he’s not taken so seriously. Think again.
Lang’s direction and blocking – this couple move around sofas seamlessly – is blissfully spot-on. Comedy, we’re reminded, is a serious business and this existential angst thrown by Dee’s Laura unravels over Rhys-Jones’ avuncular Peter’s anxiety as he tries shepherding Laura out to a clinch-deal-dinner with his financial partner.
At 61, he’s angling to retire and sell up his half of a tax-swerving accountancy firm. He doesn’t want mates rates. His own mate at a youthful 53 realises that after every accommodation, from her far better degree through career-urging and childrearing, she’s made all the sacrifices. And now bland architect Matthew with his obnoxious American wife and baby, Mattie with her surfing head-bunned Oz lover and finally Alex off to Portsmouth Uni for Media Studies (‘What is that?) means empty nest syndrome. But being French, of course it’s the abyss.
This marks the difference between say Sibleyras’ work and Ever Decreasing Circles which it might echo, without kids. And I wonder at Lang making it an expertly-tailored British comedy. Despite all the references, and updates (#MeToo) it’s a period play, though decisively not a dated one. Once-radical Laura aged about 20 couldn’t have attended Greenham Common, for instance.
Most of all though, it’s French and I wish Lang had left it French. The wonderful moments of sheer existential terror Laura opens up, and what she decides about her terrifyingly pristine space (God of Carnage? No, that also came out in 2006!) is quintessentially French, ratcheting up with a hint of Feydeau-esque crisis. We can take Reza and Zeller in the original!
Mel Smith originated Peter’s role and Lang starred opposite. You can see why Rhys-Jones felt drawn to Peter too with his underlying assumptions, sentimentality smearing it over Laura’s clear-headed semi-colon to their marriage. Indeed Laura’s great at pinpointing everything from Peter’s just-sustained weight max to his keeling over without a life-purpose. Death – ‘this is the last chapter of our lives’ – counterpoints Laura’s terrifying admission.
It’s the opposite of what you might think, but related to what you might think. It goads Peter to embark on a radical solution: reinvigorate their once-a-month to chance encounters along the corridor. There’s pure farce as they test the floorboard creaks under their feet for sexual arousal. By this time the beautiful dark-teal-walled living room has undergone a bit of a transformation anyway.
Indeed Fotni Dimou’s set is a star in its own right. From beautifully polished but nominally-creaky teak floorboards, those dark teal walls are offset with mustard sofas and chairs, ornaments and photo on shelves with TV and CD player stage-right. It oozes opulence. Lighting designer Matthew Eagland suffuses the right steady interior with glowing offsets, and sound designer Andy Graham makes a soufflé of sonic delicacy you barely notice; a discretion others might follow.
There’s the genie rub: opulence. Rhys-Jones’ and Dee’s chemistry overcome the almost offensive comfort this couple live in. But then think Reza and Zeller, and you realise all these French plays are enveloped in the same thing. Unlike The Father though, stripped bare, this set ends in a jumble others will clear. Villiers de Lisle Adam’s ‘As for living, our servants will do that for us’ from Axel’s Castle comes queasily to mind.
But that’s the takeaway here too. It’s a play of a couple who after thirty years are still in love; the actors’ chemistry convince as well as keep us riveted. Nearly every couple will take Sibleyras’s, Dell’s and doubtless Lang’s script with a slap of recognition and wink at each other throughout. And the physical comedy’s superb: watch what Rhys-Jones does with an earring at the end. It’s both touching and subversive, silly and bonding. And Dee? I won’t spoil that.
And this is a play for couples of all sexes to see. Think of a foible your partner charges you with: it’s here, from the terrible effort of business lunches to nineteen years of perked-up effort from a revelation that’s perversely led to a point of pride. Then think what happens when the expensive rug’s pulled. But you’ll have to see yourself.
Rhys-Jones strikes luminous notes, from wheedling through sentiment to sudden shock as well as continually ushering Laura towards the door if only in his head. Dee, from her resort to Art (suddenly cutting up expensive books on trains for collage, surely a mock-hommage to Reza’s Art here) continually slips his grasp. So the tension’s kept up through ratchetings and slippings-back.
Dee’s Lauraline asperity lances Rhys-Jones’ Peterisms yet he proves resilient. And… looking surreptitiously at his watch, even as he gives up at one point and pigs out, warning Laura of his Falstaffian-sized ambitions. Dee though is quicksilver, flipping from sudden acquiescence to a new objection, from feline cruelty to blank despair and tears through to sudden laughter. Their timing is as immaculate as the set – well, the set at the start. ‘Acting royalty’ say some; an easy trope. Just happens to be true.
It’s not an entirely successful text: there’s just too many sideslips and sudden objections for classic comedy; but these can be tightened (Seventy-Five Minutes Late anyone?). It builds though a thoroughly convincing, recognisable marriage with two characters who overcome what Keats called elsewhere the ‘disagreeables’ of French comfort. And you only feel those sideslips in retrospect.
There’s enough residual wisdom to wonder what life, not Sibleyras and Co, will make of Laura and Peter. They’re not a burgeoning sitcom couple, can only breathe in this one blast of recognition and reset. But their sliver of humanity is just a bit infinite.
There’ll be some who’ll complain. Ignore them and the March winds. Don’t miss this authentic, touching, devastatingly comic anatomy of a marriage as soufflé, supremely served by Rhys-Jones and Dee.