There’s little to the story. General St Pé, in his late 50s, with a nagging, hypochondriac wife and two frumpy daughters, is acutely aware of time passing and the loss of his youthful prowess. He maintains that his true love is a woman who he danced with 17 years previously and who has come into his life again; he endeavours to find happiness with her.
This is a play that starts out like a farce only to turn into the darkest of dark comedies, like biting into a chocolate dessert to find it’s bitter. Anouilh’s interest is not in the farce but in morality, the foibles of ageing and, being French and rationalist, the state of the soul. Interestingly, the character who discourses most on the state of the soul is not the priest but the doctor, a nice sardonic turn from Nicholas Woodeson, whom one might have imagined had an interest in more corporeal matters. I’m not sure, however, that 21st-century audiences – outside of a Catholic debating society – are quite as enthralled by such discourses as mid-20th century ones would have been.
As the General, Peter Bowles has let himself in for a marathon effort – he’s on stage pretty much the entire time and he acquits himself well – although he looks rather trim for someone whose embonpoint is mentioned at regular intervals. He’s better at bringing out the humour than the pathos, though he doesn’t quite capture the general’s underlying sadness.
He’s well supported by Al Weaver as the general’s virginal secretary who blossoms in the course of the play and Maggie Steedas his bitter wife, whose raging at the loss of her youth and beauty outdo the general’s self-pitying musings. Ranjit Bolt has provided a lively new version with a good balance of anachronisms (did they really talk of a masochist streak in 1910?) and speech from the period.
Anouilh (or possibly Bolt) displayed a remarkable prescience when he talks of the length of time an Englishman will wait for a train – I managed to get to the theatre with seconds to spare thanks to the vagaries of Southern Rail. I’m pleased that I did. While the play might have a bit too much moralising for modern tastes – a sort of French Shaw but with better jokes – this is a lively, well-performed production, the sort of thing that Chichester does well.
- Maxwell Cooter