By Terence Rattigan
Entente Non Cordiale
A group of young gentlemen gather in Villa Miramar in France to learn French for the diplomatic corps entry exams. Coming from a line of toffs himself with a diplomat father and once earmarked for the same career, playwright Terence Rattigan was obviously writing, to cite an old adage "what he knew" in 1936.
And that year was a rum old twelve months for diplomacy. George V died to be succeeded by Edward VIII who within a few months had abdicated in favour of his brother. Stalinist purges swept the Soviet Union. France elected a left-wing government. The Spanish army of Africa rose up against the left wing Spanish Republican government, Syria gained partial independence from France, the Italian army marched into Ethiopa, Japan and Germany signed an anti-communist pact and National Socialist Germany reoccupied the Rhineland.
And aged 25, Rattigan scored his first theatre success, inspired by his own experiences at a German crammer, after honing an economic writing technique penning dialogue for quota quickies at Teddington Studios. Luckily for us, this Hi-De-Hi boarding house school for toffs, distracted by the fairer sex, channels the more frivolous side of this era in a delicious production directed by Paul Miller at the Orange Tree Theatre.
And my God, doe-eyed Diana (Genevieve Gaunt) , an English rose cum Hollywood femme fatale, does cause havoc at the crammer college of M. Maingot (David Whitworth). As she exercises her own seductive divide-and-rule ruses, the men tumble for her like diplomats unable to resist the most powerful she-nation.
Ambassador's son Hon Alan Howard (Alex Bhat), already fluent in French, destined by family for the diplomatic service but a novelist and pacifist by inclination, becomes increasingly embittered. Stoked by Diana, his relations with the more sentimental Kit Neilan (Joe Eyre) and bluff Royal Navy man Commander Bill Rogers (William Belchambers) also become more than strained, eventually coming to blows.
Meanwhile the demure tutor, Jacqueline (Sarah Winter), daughter of the proprietor, and Kenneth (Patrick MacNamee), Diana's cadet brother, are also victims of unrequited affections. Indeed, apart from M. Maingot and the maid Marianne (perfectly French Laila Alj), only hearty Englishman Brian Curtis (Tom Hanson), with sterling qualities and sex not love on the brain, keeps his head when all about him are losing theirs.
Like all the best farces, this has more serious undercurrents. Claws lurk beneath the cut glass accents, cod French (anyone else remember Punch's Let's Parler Franglais?), irregular verbs and present definitely tense as Bastille Day arrives with carnival celebrations at the local casino.
Genevieve Gaunt's timing (and claws) as predatory Diana are spot on, raising the temperature and laughs backed by - what else but - French windows. The sparsely-furnished yet expressive set, from Simon Daw, suits the performance space topped by blackboards fronting the balcony chalked with French exercises.
The costumes are satisfyingly recognizable types while the transitions are pleasingly lit by Mark Doubleday to pass time on the in-the-round stage with music by David Shrubsole.
The male characters all make their mark and throw out their own point of view: Alex Bhat as Alan, seemingly in control but with demagogic tendancies and increasingly frantic behind his copy of Le Monde while Joe Eyre's Kit has an underlying vulnerability; Tom Hanson makes barrel-chested Brian, for whom it is almost always business as usual, stride through the wreckage; William Belchambers convincingly turns from love struck suitor to bodyguard, while Patrick McNamee embodies nervy Kenneth.
David Whitworth cuts an appropriately professorial figure, donning his Carnival fancy dress with aplomb. Delicate Sarah Winter is sweetly besotted as daughter "Jack" (from Jacqueline rather than Frère Jacques) who by the end shows her own claws in a Oscar-Wilde-like scene with Diana. Even with sometimes slightly dodgy French accents, there is a charm as the farce unravels.
Ah yes, and TLT had no idea until her trip to the West Coast of France via the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond that Mr Rattigan had already bagged the red, amber and green light idea as his own in French Without Tears. Listen out for it in the second act! :)
While this may seem like a frothy piece of almost-juvenilia, Rattigan himself was at pains to point out it dealt with matters close to the heart of the young idealistic 1930s' playwright. This production has a pleasing clarity working on many levels with at least two young children in the audience enjoying the farce element of the show as much as the adults. A green light from TLT and her bagnole, but not quite as Rattigan meant it in his play!