French Without Tears – February 2007


By: Terence Rattigan

Directed by: Paul Miller

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Friday 16th February 2007

I was well confused by all the signs that were up in the foyer before the performance. On the one hand, we were informed that the part of Lord Heybrook(?) would be played by some chap, and on the other, that the part of Kit Neilan would be played by Ben Lambert. What was going on? Especially as Lord Heybrook wasn’t mentioned in the cast list? Total confusion, finally cleared up at the very end of the play. So read on.

We were in the Circle for only the second time at the Yvonne Arnaud, and I wouldn’t recommend it. The front row is fine, but the other rows are very snug, both sideways and for leg room. Somehow it seemed steeper than in the second circle at the RST. But we managed. Our view was OK, though we couldn’t see faces very well, and some of the dialogue was lost.

There was an announcement at the start about the replacement for Kit Neilan’s part. Apparently Hugh Skinner had needed surgery last Sunday, and Ben Lambert had taken over at very short notice. (They had two rehearsal days scheduled, the Monday and Tuesday, then the opening night!) As a result, Ben was using the script, and they hoped we would be OK with that (well of course we would). Given that the setting is a language school, it didn’t seem too out of place to have one of the characters carrying a script around – they had notebooks most of the time anyway.

The set was a living room – door back left, French windows beside them to the patio and garden, door to kitchen back right, fireplace on the left wall with a couple of chairs and some stools in front of it, and in the centre of the room, a long table with eight chairs. There wasn’t much decoration on the walls – a map of Europe, a couple of pictures – and so the room seemed very sparse. Maybe the effect was different from another angle.

The play opens with a chap, Kenneth, sitting at the table with his books, apparently working on some exercise or other, as the maid brings in the breakfast things – bread and coffee, basically. We then meet the other characters as they trickle in for breakfast. There’s Brian, the man about town who’s only after a good time with lots of women, drink, fun and minimal work. Kenneth has to translate “she has ideas above her station” into French, for which Brian helpfully suggests “elle a des idées au dessus de son gare”, a line I remembered, but didn’t know from where. Now I do. As a general point, there were lots of French lines in this, and apart from not always hearing them clearly, I couldn’t have followed most of them anyway. It’s been a long time since I did any French, and it wasn’t up to this standard. So that did take off a bit from my enjoyment. Perhaps a copy of the text and a French/English dictionary are called for before we see it again.

The plot revolves around Kenneth’s sister, Diana, a total vamp. She readily acknowledges that her only talent is to make men fall in love with her, and while she’s staying at the villa while her brother learns enough French to join the Diplomatic Service, she’s put herself about a bit. One student, Kit has already fallen under her spell, and another, Alan (the son of an ambassador, and therefore expected to follow in his father’s career) has been resisting manfully. The action (such as it is in a Rattigan play) hots up when a new man arrives to start studying with them. Lt-Commander Rogers, or Bill, is treated to Diana’s charms from the off, and she manages to tell both him and Kit that she’s not really interested in the other, but loves only them. Matters come to a head when both men finally stop fighting long enough to discover her deception, and confront her together, demanding to know which man she truly loves. The devious manipulative she-devil-bitch then indicates that it’s Alan she’s really in love with, and he desperately enlists the help of the other two to protect him from her seductive spell.

Alan decides to leave the villa and take up writing full-time, partly because that’s his dream, and partly to avoid Diana. She’s all for going with him, but as Lord Heybrook is about to arrive, she sees a better chance, and hangs on. Everyone has a good laugh as she makes her entrance, all titivated up to entice the new student. It turns into an even bigger laugh as he comes through the French windows – all of fifteen, and not even shaving yet! Her disappointment was a pleasure for all to see.

There’s also a sub-plot concerning Jacqueline, the professor’s daughter, who’s been in love with Kit for a couple of months. She has a chat with Diana at one point, and it becomes clear that Diana isn’t prepared to share her men, even though she’s got more than she can handle. Fortunately, once Kit realises Diana’s deceitfulness, he starts to consider other options, assisted by Alan’s betrayal of Jacqueline’s confidences. It also becomes clear that for all Diana’s seductions, she’s not actually prepared to take things beyond the kissing stage – when Brian tries it on, she gives him a good slap.

Given the newness of the production, and having one cast member still reliant on the script, I thought they did this very well. All the performances were fine, and I particularly liked Alan, Brian and Bill, while Diana was seriously believable as a woman who can snare men without even lifting a finger. The scene where the men discover Diana’s duplicity was well done, and will come on more when Kit can drop the script fully. I also enjoyed the drunken aftermath, when the men have come back from the casino and are well sloshed – we get to see a different side to Bill. The French went largely over my head, and although it got a lot of laughs from the stalls, I suspect I wasn’t the only one missing out. I did find the amount of laying and clearing of the table a bit distracting, but on the whole I enjoyed this, and would like to see it again, to see how it develops.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at

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