Camden Fringe 2009
Monsieur Proust and his Stripper
by Chris Mellor
Venue: Etcetera Theatre
Two men share a shabby garret in early 20th century Paris. Philippe is a waiter at the Ritz with a sideline as a footman to a strange man he calls The Eccentric. Andre is an ex-waiter at the Ritz and aspiring artiste with a sideline in posing for homoerotic pictures for a dirty old man. In describing their experiences, they realise they are in fact both working for the same man: Marcel Proust – eccentric, dirty old man, and arguably the world’s greatest novelist.
Chris Mellor’s play is perhaps more an academic exercise than a dramatic one, and any writer who attempts to explain Proust in an hour is either very brave or very foolish. At one point Philippe brandishes a manuscript of À La Rechurche du Temps Perdu which is as thin as a copy of Heat magazine rather than the fat Yellow Pages it should be, and in some ways the play is inevitably as reductive. It is of course hard to explain seven volumes teeming with more than 2,000 characters, but to be fair to Mellor he isn’t really trying to. He is giving a flavour (a nice Proustian concept) of the artistic philosophy and inspiration of the great author. Some of this is clear, but the more complex theories are naturally skimmed over.
Where the piece succeeds is in being very historically detailed and obviously enthusiastically researched. The colourful characters observed at the Ritz, who became Proust’s characters, are vividly evoked by Andre and Phillippe who delight in gossip and scandal. The actors tell stories through monologue and mimicked conversations, and even though many of the literary references go above our heads, their accounts of gay Paris (pun very much intended) during La Belle Epoque are interesting enough in themselves.
Andrew Coppin is credible and charismatic as Andre, the waiter–turned-stripper enacting Proust’s demands for Greek erotic poses (albeit from atop the squeakiest table ever to appear in show business), and Dominic Cazenove as Philippe is a convincing frustrated novelist star struck by the dilettante author. The pair have a nice rapport with some affectionate moments, although their relationship is perhaps a little too ambiguous.
Mellor’s direction is quite simple, and the play could probably do with another creative eye to readjust some of the blocking and scene changes. There’s a little too much ‘inny-outy’ with characters leaving and coming back in three seconds later as though they’d been away for a day. Also, if blackouts are being used between scenes they should last long enough for the actor to get offstage.
At the start of the show the audience is invited to sniff jars containing scents referenced in the play, and indeed, in Proust’s novels. However, the conceit of triggering involuntary sense memory – which was essential to the French author’s process – is not as effective as it could be. I was given a jar of rotting fish smell which I simply couldn’t bear to open in the stifling heat of the Etcetera. Others had more pleasant smells like cologne and coffee, and were instructed to open them at the appropriate time in the play, supposedly to evoke the scenes being described. Unfortunately, they didn’t. I would suggest either investing in more smells or just giving out free madeleines instead; a guaranteed crowd pleaser.
Part of me couldn’t help equating the show with the Summarise Proust Competition sketch by Monty Python in which mad contestants have 30 seconds to précis the entire seven books. And part of me also thought the title would lend itself very well to a gay burlesque act. As much as one hopes Mr Coppin seizes upon this idea, it would be wrong not to recognise the work and skill that has gone into this play and to recommend it to literary lovers and starving artists. However, whether it would have cross-cultural appeal is another matter.