One of the best developments in British theatre in the last twenty years has been the restoration of Terence Rattigan’s reputation. Profoundly out of fashion during the era of Osborne, Wesker and Pinter, he has been discovered by a new generation to be as shrewd and as thoughtful an observer of the human condition as any of them, albeit in a very different style – favouring wit over gritty realism to convey his message.
French Without Tears is one of his earliest plays, written when he was only 25, and its themes are young men’s attitudes to women, and the vulnerability of youth. Rattigan was a closet homosexual all his life and it is reasonable to assume that the play was written as he was coming to terms with this fact. To judge by French Without Tears, he was also at this stage something of a bewildered misogynist, summed up in the line, ‘I like you so much that it’s sometimes an effort to remember you’re a woman at all.’ But the playwright also appreciates that it is not that simple: although one male character declares that what he wants in a woman is ‘the masculine virtues with none of the feminine vices’, he admits a few moments later that ‘men are such blundering fools’.
Four young men are staying at a crammer’s in France to learn the language. Also there is the sister of one of them, Diana. Into this group comes an older man, Commander Rogers, intent on learning French to further his naval career. He falls in love with Diana, who is encouraging one of the young men, Kit, to hope that she is love with him, but all the time she really loves Alan, another student at the crammer, while the daughter of the house, Jacqueline, is in love with Kit: an involved enough scenario to provide opportunities for passions ranging from jealousy to despair.
Alan is the most intelligent of the four young men but conceited, with a dominant personality and a sardonic wit. Yet, as a would-be but so far unsuccessful novelist, he has his vulnerabilities just as much as the others. Ziggy Heath grows into the part; the programme tells us that it is his first professional role, which makes his performance all the more impressive.
Joe Eyre, who plays Kit, is a talented comic actor but also completely believable in his devotion to Diana and his efforts to see off rivals for her affection. Commander Rogers has to change from an uptight, humourless prig into one of the boys, and in Tim Delap’s hands the change seems entirely natural. A mention also for Alex Large as Brian, who is the one red-blooded male who does not fall for Diana; it is clever of Rattigan to include this stolid, amiable character who is a contrast to all the passion seething around him and who is ‘too stupid to be bad-tempered’.
Diana must be an unsatisfying part to play, as she has to be primarily flirtatious and decorative, but Florence Roberts certainly meets those requirements and also conveys an awareness of the power that her sex-appeal gives her. Jacqueline is the meatier role, and Beatriz Romilly succeeds in making her the most sympathetic character on the stage.
The whole cast gives full value to Rattigan’s witty dialogue and keeps the action moving along with good comic timing, but there is also effective use of pauses and even silences. It is a very polished performance of an amusing and interesting play, and it deserves much bigger audiences than the rather sparse first-night house.
Future performances: 9 November at 2.30 and 7.45, 10-11 November at 7.45, 12 November at 2.30 and 7.45.