Like Noel Coward, Terence Rattigan’s reputation has been reassessed in recent years with some of his plays being given ‘revisionist’ productions which show them in a new light. The Browning Version and The Deep Blue Sea, for example, now tend to be seen in the context of the playwright’s own repressed homosexuality and inability to reveal his true emotions.
Although English Touring Theatre’s staging of French Without Tears, the 1936 romantic comedy that made Rattigan’s name, does not try and burden its delicate frame with more than it can bear, it does still hint at interesting sexual tensions and ambiguities beneath its period charm.
The play is set one summer in a villa on the west coast of France, where a group of young men are supposed to be learning French to further their careers, but end up having lessons in love. Would-be novelist Alan commentates ironically on the way the glamorous femme fatale Diana manipulates the affections of budding diplomat Kit and naval Lieutenant Commander Rogers, but is by no means immune to her charms himself. Kit meanwhile is blind to the fact that the less pretty but more genuine Jacqueline, daughter of their French tutor Monsieur Maingot, is in love with him.
It’s true that much of this ‘French farce’ seems dated: some of the dialogue is stilted, often the jokes creak, and the chauvinist attitudes on display are rather ridiculous. But the play is beautifully constructed and, after a slowish start, Paul Miller’s nicely balanced production canters along with irresistible momentum. The witticisms may not be as sparkling as Coward’s but Rattigan’s understanding of the human heart and the bittersweet taste of young love is impressive.
Light comedy it may be, but more complex sexual undercurrents ripple its smooth surface. When the three men realize they are being toyed with by Diana, they combine forces against her dangerous charms in a show of masculine solidarity - comically expressed when after the Bastille Day fancy dress ball the excluded Diana returns alone to find the men rolling around drunkenly on top of each other trying to take off each other’s skirts.
Ben Mansfield’s performance as the campily caustic Alan is admirably assured for his debut professional engagement, late replacement Ben Lambert is extremely funny as the ludicrously jealous Kit and Adam James is also very amusing as the bluffly patronising Rogers who is all at sea when it comes to love. Jenna Harrison makes a delightfully flirtatious Diana, Hannah Yelland a sympathetic Jacqueline and as her father, Maingot, Terence Hardiman has all the necessary gallic gesticulations. Rupert Young’s Brian does his bit for entente cordiale with the local French girls, while Ben Carpenter’s Kenneth pines for Alan unrequitedly.