Monday 27 March 2017

The Miser

Garrick Theatre
25th March, 2017, matinee

“Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier” – Pierre Bourdieu

Director Sean Foley has assembled a group of comic actors of a high calibre for a reworking of Molière’s The Miser which aims to bombard the audience with laughs but skimps on the play’s social comment. I admire his approach: a bold adaptation which is in the style of Ben Elton’s Upstart Crow. It’s all very knowing, there are lots of in-jokes, and everyone looks like and acts like they’re in a Molière play from 100 years ago. Essentially, this production of The Miser is a big mugfest where theatre’s the joke. The result is a rather refreshing although not always first class comedy.

Foley’s and Phil Porter’s ‘free adaptation’ has remained quite faithful to the plot. The miserly Harpagon tips his staff with notes on elastic string, he frantically mops up spilt wine from the floor to pour it back into the bottle and his stinginess is so legendary that he once tried to sue a mouse for eating a bit of his cheese. Not wanting to have to pay for lavish weddings or expensive marriage dowries, he has a plan to marry his children off to people they don’t want to be with for financial gain. This includes marrying his son Cléante off to an elderly woman and planning to marry her daughter (whom Cléante really loves) himself. And although set in 17th century Paris, the script references Sports Direct, portrays Harpagon as having echoes of Philip Hammond, and uses French names Shia LaBeouf and Matt LeBlanc as expletives. It’s not as roguish or cynical as Martin Crimp’s version of The Misanthrope nor is it as playful as David Hirson’s Moliere-inspired La Bête because it does away with the verse. Yet there are some good visual gags and funny bits of wordplay (probably also in Molière’s original). But what’s so enjoyable about this production is its irreverence and its asides to the audience, mainly down to the efforts of Lee Mack.

Lee Mack is very funny. Lee Mack is very funny. His years as a stand-up comedian and work on pun-heavy sitcom Not Going Out means he can deliver lines thick and fast, at a pace suitable for the production’s style. His Maître-Jacques has all the unwillingness of a comedian who has signed up to do a 12 week run in a West End play. But his performance as the butler cum harpsichordist cum chef cum horseman cum hangman cum gardener provides the most fun. At one point he confiscated the Daily Mail from an audience member and shouted that it lies, especially regarding its theatre reviews. He quotes Michael Billington’s 3 star review and calls Valère an everyday Don Juan in Soho (playing next door at the Wyndham’s). He misremembers lines (or appears to) then moans at the audience that he’s got to translate it from the French. Mack has the farceur’s knack of making it seem as if the wheels are about to fall off at any minute and he’s barely keeping it together.

Of course, not all actors can be as talented as Lee Mack(!).There are no inward, psychologically driven performances in this production; it’s all about exterior. However, Matthew Horne and Katy Wix are deliciously hammy as lovers Valère and Elise. Ryan Gage is also hilarious as her brother Cléante: a powdered spendthrift fop who skips around the stage and whose wig has a tendency to fall off. It is low humour to have the two of them have different speech impediments, but it allows their performances to go hysterically over the top. Wix in particular is on another level of haughty aristocracy.

Griff Rhys Jones as the titular Harpagon puts in a memorably physical performance: intense eyes, false teeth, shabby hair, frail gate and clearly having a lot of fun in the role. Furthermore, it is a drainpipe full of water collapsing on his head that makes him realise that the love of his life is his money, asking ‘what is a man without his money?’ Similar to the gulling scenes in some of productions of Much Ado About Nothing, and in the box tree scene in the National’s excellent Twelfth Night, it is perhaps astute of Foley to use water as a dramatic means of revelation. Stand-up Andi Osho and Ellie White (The Windsors) impressively complete the main players.

Part of what Foley has done is turn the play into a typical farce: animal heads fall off walls, doors bang into people, feet go through chairs. But what worked wonderfully in his production of The Ladykillers and what is exploited to dizzy comedic heights in The Play that Goes Wrong doesn’t quite meet the same standards here. For example, a physical sequence leading up to the end of act one where a deer head falls onto Griff Rhys Jones seems mechanical and formulaic. However, Foley’s efforts, for the demographic to which this will appeal, are mostly very satisfying.

The Miser runs at the Garrick Theatre until 3rd June.

The company of The Miser. Credit: Helen Maybanks

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