FringeReview UK 2017
The Garrick Theatre hosts Sean Foley and Phil Porter’s free adaptation of The Miser, directed by Foley too. Alice Power’s reversible set of shabby seventeenth century interior and shabbier rear with friable-glassed outhouse is brightened with Blackadder costumes. Paul Keogan’s lighting falls particularly well in candle-lit scenes, Max and Ben Ringham’s sound essays orchestral blasts of baroquerie and explodes on an unsuspecting harpsichord.
Sean Foley and Phil Porter’s free adaptation of Moliere’s The Miser bowls into the Garrick Theatre with half the West End pilloried in its wake; it’s directed by Foley too. Alice Power’s reversible set of shabby seventeenth century interior and shabbier rear with friable-glass outhouse is brightened with her Blackadder (eighteenth century) costumes: notably the son and daughter of the eponymous Miser Harpagon, Griff Rhys Jones. They’ve evaded his dung-and-charcoal garb to flayed frothings of orange slash cerulean, and the son’s more outrageous puce-pink-sky-blue. It’s a hymn to self-love, a family disease. Katy Wix (Elsie) and Ryan Gage (Cléante) adopt Blackadder poshness, or gobs stuffed phonetically with pork pies if not pebbles.
If Paul Keogan’s lighting shines in candle-lit scenes, Max and Ben Ringham’s sound – orchestral blasts of baroquerie then Bach rather than Couperin – gets a workout. When Lee Mack’s factotum Maitre Jacques mimes on a keyboard, it finally escapes him: like something out of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice the harpsichord plays itself. It’s the first gag to the fourth wall. Mack informs his colleagues that the audience know he’s not playing. It doesn’t stop repeated Muppet-antics ending in a DJ-twirl of knobs at the end.
Following a recent feast of Moliere translated (only a bit more soberly) by Roger McGough, the adaptors here take even fewer prisoners. It’s true Moliere took fewer still, adapting Plautus’ original; Moliere’s essential commedia dell’arte spirits needs just this kind of treatment, as another play derived from it – One Man, Two Guvnors – reminds us. It’s been suggested by some in the cast that straight actors couldn’t survive this production. That’d be an indictment of comedians and actors, luckily it’s rubbish. Some will say that of such a free adaptation and the same word applies to them.
This high-farce Miser tries to cap its madcap cousins: every trick, from mechanical rats, various debris and actors flying into the audience (and audience handbags flying out) with participation demanded renders this panto in pantaloons a kind of revenge. The ad-libs develop in the run, so though Harpagon’s austerity autumn statements might survive, there’s a new jibe at that other Moliere down the road, Don Juan in Soho, to Michael Billington’s three stars for this very show. more perennially there’s a running joke from Jones about those in the stall being rich enough to understand his woes, and those in the gods far too poor. Later he laments the inability of younger actors to be heard, raising a very vocal response from the well-fed stalls. Finally he threatens to hang everyone who being a fourth wall know who’s stolen his money. Those nearest are threatened with returning various torn–up papers, lambasted for using programmes, so the two-hour traffic has about a quarter of an hour spun out in this manner.
Jones is here in his element, revelling in the amplitude his half-stepping out of Harpagon affords. Mack’s no slouch, with his Don Juan jibe and fingering cast members as underpaid West End understudies filling out smaller roles. Whilst some characters perpetually enact gimmicks (Gage has to stomp through every chair) Mack must vary pace from frantic to fragile, particularly every slap visited upon him.
There’s an original plot, and it’s (pretty much) adhered to. Bar those ad-libs above, most of the jokes are in any case Moliere’s. Simply put, both son and daughter wish to marry but Marianne (Ellie White) is promised to Harpagon on the cheap (she’s impoverished) whilst her aged off-stage mother will marry Gage’s Cléante much to his horror. Elsie is promised to some old roué but loves disguised Valere, even now posing as the family butler. Cue Andi Osho’s bawd and marriage-broker Frosine and this counterpoint to Jacques provides the plot’s cross-currents. The famous adage of farce as tragedy played at breakneck speed begs questions of how much pathos Moliere wished to inject, how fast he wanted to go. The plot itself suggests various eddies of self-revelation, but Harpagon emerges essentially unchanged. His own family cheerfully disperse to marriage and another family’s reunited.
Matthew Horne’s would-be hero Valere, unaccountably in love with the self-obsessed Elise, is perpetually the disguised gentleman-as-servant whose absurdities are muted; in any case he’s meant to be the brains. Horne’s job is to somehow rescue Valere from dullness, which as black-suited foil to sky-blue-pink isn’t easy. The final scenes with his arraignment and threatened executions mark the culmination of a slightly drippy nobility Horne somehow navigates from, particularly in his spats with Mack’s Jacques.
Michael Webber as deus ex machina, Saikat Ahmed as La Fleche the luckless servant, Simon Holmes as Pedro all amplify the core acts. Mack’s split timings, Jones’ mix of curmudgeon and baffled fury meets shivering neurosis, Wix’s and Gage’s brattish hysterics, all teeter towards the tragedy of the absurd. This may not be 1668 very exactly, but it’s the nearest to one side of Moliere we’ve seen for years, and conveys something of the shock of his new.