Syllabic metre, especially the alexandrine of French 17th century theatre, has never felt entirely comfortable on the English-speaking stage – pantomime, prologues and epilogues apart. But that’s been banished in Roger McGough’s adaptation as The Hypochondriac of Molière’s Le malade imaginaire. This Gemma Bodinetz production was initially staged in Liverpool as a co-production with English Touring Theatre, who are now treating the rest of the country to it.
Treating, because it’s a whirl of action, colour and puns from the opening scene-setting with servants preparing a room in Argan’s house to the final high-spirited high-stepping dance. In between a procession of grotesques seek to bleed Argon dry, both physically and metaphorically. Only his brother and servant keep clear- and reasonably cool-headed amidst the chaos. His daughter Angelique is in love with Cléante, so excused from commonsense if not from affection.
It’s very well cast, with Clive Francis revelling in the self-induced miseries of Argan, punching home the puns and the franglais which litters the text and combining in one night-robed person the tyranny of a father’s control, the doting on his second wife and his blinkered determination to buy health at any cost. Francis is matched by Leanne Best’s Toinette, the no-nonsense maid who manages to brush everyone into a happy ending, even if she has to foreshadow da Ponte’s and Mozart’s Despina to accomplish it.
There’s another assured performance by Brigid Zengeni as the avaricious wife Béline, flouncing in flame brocade as she schemes to rid herself of her step-daughter. Lucinda Raikes is Angelique, pretty and dutiful but not prepared to have her chance of happiness destroyed without making a protest; Jake Harders makes much of the courtship scene engineered through the guise of a music lesson.
Lawyers and above all doctors are Molière’s main targets, and we’re presented with some fine specimens in the persons of Neil Caple as Diaforius, Toby Dantzic as his son Thomas and Chris Porter as Bonnefoi, Fleurant and Purgeon. Dantzic in particular is extremely funny as Thomas stumbles over his over-studied speech to Angelique which somehow tips over into the one which should have waited for Béline’s arrival. Simon Coates gives reasoned argument a good airing as Béralde.
If the set is properly minimal – grey-green panels reaching up to the ceiling and just three green chairs and a half-covered table as furniture – Mike Britton’s costumes make up for it. The doctors are sombre in black with plain starched collars, though they flash devil-red linings and heels. Angelique rustles in pink and lavender and Toinette is a study in bright blue and green. The pre-recorded music by Conor Linehan is a toe-tapping Lully pastiche.