Review Round-up: Over The Moon at the Playhouse?
Date: 22 February 2008
Jean Anouilh's 1947 comedy Ring Round the Moon returned to the West End on Tuesday (19 February 2008, previews from 5 February), opening for a limited season at the Playhouse Theatre with a stellar ensemble cast featuring Angela Thorne, JJ Field, Elisabeth Dermot Walsh, Fiona Button, Belinda Lang and Peter Eyre.
Set around a lavish ball at a chateau, the tale centres on twin brothers (both played by Feild), an heiress who’s engaged to one twin but desperately in love with the other, and a ballet dancer embroiled in a plot hatched by the more calculating of the brothers.
Anouilh’s other plays include, in English, Becket, Antigone, Eurydice, The Waltz of the Toreadors and Time Remembered.Ring Round the Moon translated from the French (in which its title is L’Invitation au Chateau) by Christopher Fry, had its West End premiere at the Globe Theatre (now the Gielgud) in a production starring Paul Scofield, Claire Bloom and Margaret Rutherford. The revival is directed by Sean Mathias and designed by Colin Richmond.
Critics seemed to agree overall that Ring Round the Moon “is everything the modern theatre supposedly detests: light, elegant, studied, artificial”. However, they also agreed that there was a “curiosity value” in this “odd, diverting mix of cynicism and fairytale fun”. Predictions for the future success of the play were mixed, with some suggesting that “audiences might respond to it with guilty pleasure”, while others felt it was “sweet, skilful, almost instantly forgettable”. There was unanimous praise for a “top-notch cast”. Fiona Button was particularly singled out as “beautiful and touching as Isabelle”. Colin Richmond’s “sumptuous frocks” were also given wide spread praise, as were the “elegant dance routines.” However there was a general sense that these performances were “drowning in the incomprehensible soup of the plot” in an “unfashionable kind of theatre”.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) – “The bittersweet plays of Jean Anouilh have lost whatever shaky foothold they once held in the British theatre, so Sean Mathias’ revival of this famous 1950 translation by Christopher Fry (first directed by Peter Brook, starring Paul Scofield) of one of the very best of them, does at least have a curiosity value. Does Ring Round the Moon stand up to modern scrutiny, for a start? Enjoyable though the production is in parts, I’m not at all sure the answer comes as a positive … Colin Richmond’s setting is a rather functional conservatory, seemingly fitted out with a job lot of naked bulbs from Home Base, with sightlines that obscure Hugo’s extended occupation of a large window for about eighty customers in the left side stalls. The costumes, however, are where the money’s gone, conjuring the New Age designs of Dior and Balmain in shades of aubergine, mauve and discreet pink. JJ Field cuts a dashing figure in a midnight blue dinner suit, though his articulation is sloppy. Kenneth Tynan described Oliver Messel’s design for the original London production as decorated in gossamer fired from an icing gun. This harsher visual treatment exposes the heartlessness of the play more effectively, and its class snobberies, without enforcing an argument for its magical qualities. The fireworks at the end are pregnant with foreboding, not jollity. The highlights are the scenes staged as dance numbers (choreography by Wayne McGregor) and the sly exchanges between Madame Desmortes and her bird-like amanuensis (Joanna David) and between the butler Joshua (sepulchral, world-weary Peter Eyre) and everyone.”
Charles Spencer in the Telegraph – “Ring Round the Moon is little more than theatrical spun sugar - sweet, skilful, almost instantly forgettable. But there is something heroic about reviving such an unashamedly snobby boulevard comedy in Gordon Brown's grim puritanical Britain, and I have a hunch that audiences might respond to it with guilty pleasure … The production gets off to a shaky start - English actors these days aren't especially at ease with aristocratic elegance - and Colin Richmond's conservatory design seems both drably utilitarian and disappointingly devoid of the exotic blooms that surely ought to adorn a winter garden at a lavish party. His sumptuous frocks make considerable amends, however, as do Jason Carr's score, inspired by the tango and French cabaret music, and Wayne McGregor's elegant dance routines. Most of the cast grow in confidence to capture the play's distinctive Gallic mood in which style, wit and moments verging on farce are accompanied by an undertow of melancholy. Fiona Button, wearing an evening gown "like the smoke of bonfires" in one of Fry's characteristically over-ripe phrases, is beautiful and touching as Isabelle, the obscure, impoverished ballet dancer who comes to both love and resent the man who treats her like a puppet. There's more than a touch of Shaw's Pygmalion in her relationship with the manipulative Hugo. In a notable West End debut, JJ Field offers a memorable double as both twins. Even when they are identically dressed, he neatly distinguishes between the kind, muddled Frederic and the smooth, controlling Hugo, and there is much fun to be had as he exits as one twin and immediately re-enters as the other. There are a large number of vividly drawn and memorably played supporting roles. Angela Thorne turns Madame Desmortes into a terrifying mixture of Lady Bracknell and Margaret Thatcher. Joanna David offers a gem of a comic performance as her repressed companion, while Belinda Lang is in vintage comic form as Isabelle's vulgar, garrulous mother, all shocking red hair and beady eye for the main chance. John Ramm contributes an outstanding silly ass, Elisabeth Dermot Walsh supplies plenty of bitchy glamour as the disgruntled fiancée, not least in a splendid cat-fight with Isabelle, while Peter Eyre, an actor apparently incapable of a dud performance, is once again superb as a splendidly solemn, sonorous butler.
Simon Edge in the Daily Express (two stars)- “The requirement of chaotic comedy is that the audience gets the set-up and is engaged enough to follow the twists and turns. The French may be the experts at farce but Anouilh, ever the radical,breaks all the rules and from the outset it’s very hard to care about Hugo’s complex plan. Dressed in a fashion-feast of Forties costumes, the top-notch cast give belting performances. Thorne is wonderfully majestic, David is more highly strung than an orchestra of violins and Bruni is magnificent as an aristocratic young tigress dancing a vampish tango. The energetic Feild has great charisma too, even if he sometimes speaks as if he has a mouth full of olives. But they all seem to be acting in a dramatic void, drowning in the incomprehensible soup of the plot. Colin Richmond¹s sterile conservatory set makes you wish you were in a more interesting part of the house, and it’s like watching a play in a foreign language ¬ everyone is animated, but you’re not certain why.”
Michael Billington in the The Guardian (four stars)– “Christopher Fry sub-titled his 1950 translation of Anouilh's play "a charade with music". In that sense, it is everything the modern theatre supposedly detests: light, elegant, studied, artificial. Yet Sean Mathias's fine revival not only recaptures a vanished theatrical age but reminds us there is ironic substance to this apparent gossamer trifle … Rightly, however, Mathias's production, shifted from the belle epoque to the world of Dior and Balmain gowns, highlights the glamorous game playing JJ Field, making his West End debut in the twin roles of Hugo and Frederic, is adept at exposing the contrast between the heartless and kindly brothers. Fiona Button as Isabelle also hints at the toughness underneath her supposed innocence and there is a wealth of rich support. Angela Thorne radiates aristocratic hauteur as the chatelaine, Belinda Lang turns Isabelle's working-class mother into an unstoppable chatterbox, and Peter Eyre as the butler glides through the action like a Gallic Jeeves. This may be an unfashionable kind of theatre but it confirms Anouilh was a master theatrical magician.
Paul Taylor in the The Independent (three stars) - "Watching Anouilh's Ring Round the Moon is like consuming a light soufflé in which someone has secreted bits of razor blade. Both its gossamer texture and its astringency are honoured in the barbed elegance of Sean Mathias's entertaining revival at the Playhouse … There's a bizarre scene in which Isabelle (deftly portrayed by Fiona Button) and Leigh Lawson's depressive millionaire demonstrate their immunity to the charms of money by boisterously shredding bundles of banknotes. As a radical gesture, this has its limits; it's not the most positive redistribution of wealth. In a striking West End debut, the fetching JJ Field adroitly differentiates the sensitive, melancholy Frederic and the fascinatingly heartless Hugo. Driven to a frenzy of superiority, the latter imagines he has seen through the pretences of his guests, but the play sees much further than he does.”
Benedict Nightingale in the Times (three stars) “Back in 1950, soon after the young Peter Brook had brought it from Paris, Kenneth Tynan called Anouilh's Ring Round the Moon “a complete wedding cake, traced with an icing gun on gossamer”, and he wasn't being rude. After all, it was one of its author's pièces brillantes, a class of drama that brought light to a Crippsian London still grimly recovering from the Luftwaffe. Indeed, Oliver Messel's conservatory set was so enchanting, and the fireworks that ended the evening so dazzling, that (said Tynan) audiences simply couldn't stop applauding. Well, Christopher Fry's translation still sparkles with Wildean wit. But the fireworks in Sean Mathias's revival are blobs of light at the back and Colin Richmond's set is as dowdy as a greenhouse bereft of so much as a ripening tomato. Yet maybe that's as it should be, for contemporary London seems to me less in need of wedding cakes, gossamer and brittle humour than the chastening you find in Anouilh's pièces noires or pièces grinçantes: Waltz of the Toreadors or his inexplicably neglected Poor Bitos. And Ring Round the Moon has just a little bite. As always with Anouilh, there's darkness, even bitterness, beneath the comic surface and theatrical trickery … Fiona Button's Isabelle is one of the evening's successes: innocent, spirited and at her brightest when she's helping Leigh Lawson's billionaire to rip up the banknotes he's come to find burdensome. It's a futile gesture - but typical of the play's odd, diverting mix of cynicism and fairytale fun.”
- by Kate Jackson
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