Theatre

Patriotic Traitor finds dramatic gold in France’s interwar history

Plus: Hand to God is an aggressive and puerile attack on Christian evangelism – and an ideal present for youngsters

12 March 2016

9:00 AM

12 March 2016

9:00 AM

Jonathan Lynn, co-author of Yes Minister, has excavated the history of France during the two world wars and discovered dramatic gold. He presents us with pen portraits of eminent Frenchmen we think we know. Marshal Pétain (Tom Conti) is a humane pragmatist who refuses to risk speculative assaults on the Western Front. He evolved his strategy from a single motto: never attack until victory is certain. That worked fine at Verdun but in 1940 the same doctrine entailed capitulation to the all-conquering Germans. Pétain’s young protégé during the Great War is a surprise and a delight. We imagine Charles de Gaulle as a monumental slab of garlic-scented arrogance with the body of a furniture-shifter and the face of a parrot-fish. But here we meet a shy, brave, vulnerable aesthete whose single-mindedness makes him eccentrically charming rather than cold or vain. His wife encourages him to acquire humility and he instantly assents to her advice. He then asks disconcertingly, ‘What shall I do now I’m humble?’
Lynn’s brilliance is to realise that our preconceptions can be fruitfully turned on their heads. One of de Gaulle’s famous lines — ‘when I want to know what France thinks I ask myself’ — might suggest either over-weaning arrogance or homespun common sense. The delivery is everything. Laurence Fox, not hitherto noted as a light comedian, turns out to be a brilliantly gifted clown. His de Gaulle is a swaggering and inspirational maverick who also comes across as a bit of a heart-throb. With his stiff and insensitive sweetness, Fox is hilarious throughout. He’s is cleverly matched with the sly, elusive Conti, who gives a performance of quiet mastery. He plays Pétain with a Yorkshire lilt, which sounds a bit odd from a French general, but it highlights his provincial origins and dislike of cosmopolitan fakery. Conti is one of those marinated old turns who can trigger a laugh with just a half-inch upward curl of the lip or eyebrow. The script is also a history lesson that reveals a curious symmetry between the characters who began as master /pupil and gradually became almost father/son. When Vichy France condemned de Gaulle as a traitor, Pétain reluctantly signed the warrant for his execution. And after the war, when Pétain was tried, de Gaulle had the option — which he declined, of course — of putting his former mentor to death. The present run of this terrific comedy has sold out and a move to larger premises seems inevitable. One cautionary note. Lynn has a defect common to playwrights who emerged in the 1970s: not much interest in women. The only female character here, Mme de Gaulle, is nothing more than a wise pair of udders in a silk blouse.

Hand To God, a costly import from Broadway, is set in a community of southern Baptists where adolescents are encouraged to rely on glove puppets to express their feelings. This barmy but promising idea has unexpected drawbacks. The glove puppets are minuscule, barely larger than the hand that animates them, and this reduces their power as vessels of communication. The writer, Rob Askins, takes broad swipes at Christian evangelism, which in Britain we associate with marginalised Caribbean or African communities. In America it’s different. Southern Baptism is white, blue-eyed, wealthy, deeply rooted, politically formidable and morally assured. So a New York audience naturally considers it a mark of superiority to laugh at a tradition that retains traces of Mayflower puritanism. But for bourgeois Londoners to jeer at genuflecting Africans singing hymns in a tin shack in Colindale would be unthinkable. So the comic blueprint is out of kilter with our prejudices. And there’s the aesthetic. We’re used to transatlantic marionette shows like The Muppets or Avenue Q, which have a gentle, knowing levity.
This play is aggressive and puerile with a lot of ketchup-y bloodshed and slapstick brutality. Quite a bit of furniture gets smashed to pieces. There’s a grey old pastor (Neil Pearson in an underwritten role) who represents various forms of impotence — religious, political and physical — that will make a lot of sense to pubescent boys. An early scene shows Janie Dee’s spirited Margery, an ageing hottie with a taste for rough sex, seducing her son’s best friend in the church hall. This, too, seems intended solely for the gratification of young lads. Ditto the mimed scenes of oddball eroticism acted out by the puppets of two nervous lovers, Jason and Jessica. The decision to hire Harry Melling (Dudley Dursley from the Potteriad) in the lead role appears to confirm the show’s pitch for a youthful crowd. Unfortunately, those under 25 rarely have the money, or the inclination, to fork out a hundred quid on a pair of West End tickets. But as a birthday treat for youngsters this show is ideal.

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