French Without Tears review at Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond – ‘rare and rousing revival’
At the time he wrote this uplifting comedy, the 25-year-old Terence Rattigan clearly hadn’t decided if he wanted to be the next Noel Coward or the next Frederick Lonsdale. He eventually turned out to be better than both.
In this seldom seen rookie work, which was a West End hit in 1936, all the indications are that it was Coward’s lightness of touch he most aspired to since French Without Tears has all the emotional depth of a meringue, and is at times every bit as delicious.
A farce in search of a plot, Rattigan was inspired to write it whilst attending a French language college prior to sitting an exam to enter the British diplomatic service, a career path he subsequently abandoned. One of the characters (Alan) is very evidently based on the playwright.
The plot, such as it is, concerns the amorous expectations of five students – three young men, two young women – for whom the pursuit of love is infinitely more engaging than the task at hand, namely learning to parler Francais.
Sending the testosterone-fuelled young men into paroxysms of frenzy is the alluring but feckless Diana (perfectly cast Genevieve Gaunt) who plays them off against each other with Machiavellian artfulness. They fall at her pretty feet like mesmerised puppies.
You could say that choosing to revive the only significant Rattigan play that never gets revived was a tad perverse on Paul Miller’s part, but so deft and light-footed is his direction, so spirited and charming the ensemble, that it seduces you in much the same way as the goddess Diana enslaves her drooling acolytes.