Performing Arts
© Mike Keenan



French Without Tears - Shaw's cherchez la femme!

Martin Happer as Lieutenant-Commander Rogers and Robin Evan Willis as Diana Lake in French Without Tears. Photo by David Cooper

When I studied high school French, my attention span might have peaked somewhat if Brigitte Bardot had sat in on the class! Or Italian with Sophia Loren. In Shaw's "French Without Tears," a similar fate involves young men in a villa on the west coast of France. They are there to learn French because some aspire to be diplomats while others merely try to please their parents.

The play features a blonde femme fatale, Diana Lake (Robin Evan Willis), in the mode of Bardot and Loren. She flaunts so much - let's call it joie de vivre, that those cursed with the y chromosome can't help falling desperately in love with her. And she's determined to bag them all. "I've got a sort of gift for making men fall in love with me," she explains. "I always act on the principle there's safety in numbers." Terence Rattigan wrote this play at age 25, and it shows. He seems primarily bent on ridiculing the plight of young male heterosexuals as passion overcomes reason, thanks to the presence of comely Willis and her unremitting sexual tease.

His play ran for over a thousand performances and it helped to establish him as a major British playwright. The original cast included Rex Harrison and Jessica Tandy. We learn from the program notes that it's an autobiographical play, inspired by Rattigan's time in France studying
languages to be a diplomat like his father before him. "French Without Tears" premiered at the Criterion Theatre in London on November 6, 1936 and Shaw has produced several of his works including After the Dance (2008) and Harlequinade (2004).

Surging hormones still afflict male youth, so it's the females in the audience who get to laugh hardest at how feeble and easily ensnared the male of the species can be depicted when mesmerized by a blonde bombshell.

Perhaps partly because of the above, I found the play as uncomfortable as the seats. (Really, it's time for a makeover of the Royal George.) For non-bilingual Americans and yes, many Canadians, the jokes based on jumbled translations get tedious. Mangling French goes only so far in terms of jest, while the "conflict" between the males was more reminiscent of high school antics rather than a boarding school for would-be diplomats. Like Present Laughter, this play is pure fluff, window dressing for the eyes, yet the older audience seemed to love it. (As in an "in, out, nobody gets hurt" philosophy.)

Wade Bogert-OBrien as Kit Neilan and Robin Evan Willis as Diana Lake in French Without Tears. Photo by David Cooper   Robin Evan Willis   Robin Evan Willis as Diana Lake in French Without Tears. Photo by Emily Cooper   Robin Evan Willis as Diana Lake and Julie Martell as Jacqueline Maingot in French Without Tears. Photo by Emily Cooper   Ben Sanders as Alan Howard and Robin Evan Willis as Diana Lake in French Without Tears. Photo by Emily Cooper

Michael Ball is believable, displaying pedantic disgust with his students as a demanding and elderly French teacher, Monsieur Maingot. His French is remarkable, but he must feel anguish with yet another grumpy old man role. Later in the play, he gets decked out and seems to flourish in a Scottish kilt while Kit is clad in a Greek kilt, the fustanella, with predictable jokes about the outfits.

Kit (Wade Bogert-O'Brien) exhibits the robust, excess energy that youth should display, while at the other end of the spectrum, Billy Lake as the youngest student, Kenneth Lake, is pigeon-holed as being only concerned with his studies.

Martin Happer as Lieutenant-Commander Rogers, Craig Pike as Brian Curtis and Michael Ball as Monsieur Maingot in French Without Tears. Photo by David Cooper

Lieutenant-Commander Rogers (Martin Happer) is a naval officer, older than the other competing males. He manages to hold his own, particularly in the fight scenes as Happer and O'Brien (Kit Neiland) decide to fight over Diana, but end up as love-scarred buddies.

There is no reason offered for Willis to be in this setting other than to reveal lots of flesh as she should in her role, but the tease wears thin to both audience and cast when pushed to the limit. (The boys get slapped.)

Alan Howard (Ben Sanders) - Rattigan in disguise, is the slim son of a diplomat who is learning French in order to follow in his father's footsteps, but his real passion is writing . He is initially aloof regarding Willis, but alas, is mortal too.

Julie Martell is Jacqueline, Monsieur Maingot's daughter, the contrast with Willis - sincere, honest yet out to hook one of the lads (Kit) on her own. Sadly for her, she is known to the men as "Jack."

Ben Sanders as Alan Howard, Martin Happer as Lieutenant-Commander Rogers and Robin Evan Willis as Diana Lake in French Without Tears. Photo by David Cooper   Craig Pike as Brian Curtis, Ben Sanders as Alan Howard and Robin Evan Willis as Diana Lake in French Without Tears. Photo by Emily Cooper   French Without Tears

Brian (Craig Pike) is yet another student whose main claim to fame is that he has been slapped by Willis. His other preoccupations along with the "men" are to drink and carouse. Nobody except Kenneth (Lake) seems interested in French in the abstract. The play ends with a limp punch line on the arrival of Lord Heybrook (Dylan Rumsey) who quickly vanishes off set. Diana's men hope to pass her off to the newbie victim male to escape her charm, but the end feels rather shaggy-dog casual.

Directed by Kate Lynch, French Without Tears runs at the Royal George Theatre until Sept. 15.




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