After the horror that was last year's solo show about a lonely and sexually deprived middle-aged woman (the truly awful Betty), my expectations for the latest West End addition to said genre were understandably low. What a surprising relief then to be able to report that Geraldine Aron's My Brilliant Divorce is actually rather ... well, brilliant, at least as rendered here by Dawn French in a handsome and heart-warming performance.
Is it better, as a progamme extract by John Mortimer puts, to have "a life of choked-back fury and a companion to hate than the loneliness of the bed-sitter and the silence of a book in the corner of a holiday hotel"?
That's the question that French's Angela grapples with when her husband Max unceremoniously dumps her in favour of a young Mexican minx. Over the next three years of her life - which translates into one hour and 40 minutes of stage time - Angela's emotions, insecurities and finances rise and fall according to the whims of her ex.
Hers is a journey - not to mention some pit-stop reflections on mothers, blind dates, the tell-tale signs and scares of ageing and so on - that could be so very very clichéd. And yet somehow, the piece manages to steer just clear of that dreaded territory.
Aron's script helps out on the cliché-avoidance by providing lots of topical references and some quirky character traits - not least, Angela's own affliction of, not mere hypochondria, but rather LAMBs syndrome (Laymen's Access to Medical Books, that is). Meanwhile, Francis O'Connor's empty night-sky stage with the occasional well-placed prop - including a dog on wheels and annual Guy Fawkes' fireworks - is cute and, no doubt, cost-effective.
But what really makes the evening a joy is its indomitable and inimitable star. Some may argue that this accomplished comedienne - best known as one-half of television duo, French and Saunders - is miscast and that her natural good humour works against the play's darker nuances. For me, quite the opposite is true. Under Garry Hynes' direction, French's comedic skills are employed to lift the piece and lend it a real, and quite memorable, "smiling through tears" poignancy.
Though I shouldn't like to encourage marital disharmony, I would recommend My Brilliant Divorce. Sometimes small surprises come in big packages - and are all the better for it, too. Bravo, Dawn French.
- Terri Paddock