Beastly bankers and rebellious workers, wealth creators and the trickle-down effect – they’re all targets in Sean Foley‘s freely interpreted and splendidly silly adaptation of Molière’s comic classic, which only goes to show how little has changed since Louis XIV enjoyed watching it almost 350 years ago.
The entire show is carefully choreographed, from Cléante’s extravagant pirouettes to Harpagon’s series of unfortunate household accidents. It’s packed with slick, well-drilled set-pieces that Molière, himself a comic actor, knew would work, and the cast of seasoned comedy pros have all added their own spins to Foley’s direction.
Griff Rhys Jones is masterly as the grasping old miser Harpagon, a dysfunctional dad who rules the family roost by parsimony. Vainly clinging to the illusion that he still has the personal attractions necessary to seduce a young bride, his strutting attempt at coquetry is hideously entertaining. The tragedy of his unquenchable obsession with money eventually finds a vent, and Rhys Jones has one of the production’s few moments of real pathos as his heart breaks over his missing moneybox.
Despite many years on stage as a supremely successful stand-up comic, (not to mention his long-running TV sitcom Not Going Out), Lee Mack has never actually been in a play before.
You wouldn’t know it. His engaging, sharp-witted and assured Maître Jacques is a cornerstone of the production and Mack’s mastery of communicating with – and controlling – an audience makes this an inspired piece of casting. He’s even prepared to flash the flesh, though you’re advised to keep your eyes off the prize…
The cast have hugely impressive comedy credentials, and it seems a curious decision to rely so heavily on speech impediments to generate laughs from Harpagon’s disgruntled children. But Katy Wix is a fabulously fruity Elise, lustily adoring of Mathew Horne‘s sparky butler-in-disguise Valère. Andi Osho shines bright as woman of the world Frosine, and Ellie White brilliantly channels the plummy vowels of the (very) upper classes as Marianne. Her relatively underplayed characterisation comes as quite a relief after the all-guns-blazing approach elsewhere on the stage.
The Miser is played for laughs, just as it should be, but the volume-11 level of melodrama and frenetic, quasi-pantomime energy feels overwhelming at times. Audience-baiting, reminiscent of Dame Edna at her most cruel, is also leaned on rather too heavily.
The unquestionable triumph is Alice Power’s superb crumbling set and lavish costume design. From Harpagon’s stained tights to Frosine’s plunging scarlet dress, the clothes are a visual feast, though even the women’s gorgeous gowns are outshone by foppish Cléante’s ballooning britches.
Chris Larner’s delightful songs are production highlights (as well as handy plot prompts), and choreographer Lizzi Gee has the last laugh with an entirely unexpected curtain call.
'Comedy first, psychological insight later' is Foley’s take on The Miser, and indeed his production is fresh, funny and farcical. But maybe his cast can afford to relax a bit more – they’re all excellent, after all.
The Miser runs at the Garrick Theatre until 3 June.