With the first act set in the Watermill’s garden and using the theatre’s trademark actor/musicians, Andy Brereton’s stylish production of Jean Anouilh’s early comedy should be the perfect summer show.
The play follows the exploits of three inept thieves who pose as Spanish noblemen in order to steal from an English aristocratic family, only to find that their true identity is known all along. The play is set in the spa town of Vichy, France, and two beautiful young heiresses provide bait for both the trio of thieves and a pair of merchant adventurers; but things become serious when one girl falls in love with a young thief.
Anouilh uses Carnival disguise as a metaphor for how people hide their true selves to appear something they are not. While his later plays are marked by a harsh interaction of the world of romantic dreams and reality, there’s a more gentle collision in this early offering.
Garry McCann’s elegant exterior set and equally stylish interior, along with the array of colourful and comical costumes, make the show a visual spectacle. Janie Armour’s delicious music is influenced by Edwardian music hall, French musette and the silent movie era.
Yet the uniformly excellent cast is hampered by a clunky 1950s’ translation that smacks of the school room rather than the theatre. Karen Mann plays Lady Hurf with great aplomb, but her words sound leaden in the upbeat comedic situation. Kate Adams and Louise Shuttleworth struggle against the translation to play young coquettes, and the father and son bankers, Dupont-Dupont per et fils (Derek Crewe and Kieran Buckeridge), have a hard time playing comedy rather than farce. The thieves, Paul Benzing, James Traherne and the love interest, Michael Lambourne fare better as their roles are inherently more slapstick, but I longed for either the punch of a Feydeau farce or the anarchy of the Marx Brothers in the script.
I’m a great fan of actor/musicians and more than grateful for the music - Youthful Hannah Tristram is particularly impressive as both actor and multi-instrumentalist, and she hasn’t even started professional training yet - but here it is too often jammed into the proceedings and putting down the instruments holds up the action.
This is a brave attempt by the Watermill to present a rarely-seen play that makes excellent use of their outdoor setting. If only they had invested in a translation that does proper justice to the story and to the actors.