A new translation by Jeremy Sams
The Ustinov Autumn season is set to celebrate French Farce and starts with Monsieur Popular; Labiche may be best known for his play “The Italian Straw Hat” and he is considered one of the most celebrated French writers of the 19th century. Born into the bourgeois class that was to provide him with the social setting for most of his works, Labiche read for the bar and then briefly worked as a journalist before turning to writing fiction and stage comedy.
Here we find the central character Celimare (Raymond Coulthard) who has a past full of romantic affairs with married ladies which he has kept under control by befriending their husbands too, and in truth, he has been a wonderful friend. He remembers their birthdays, chooses their furnishings and employs their cooks. Everybody’s happy – even the dog. But when the 47 year-old prepares to leave the past behind and marry 18 year-old Emma, it’s easy enough to burn his lovers’ letters, but his mistresses’ husbands are simply not prepared to let him go.
The comedy is unsurprisingly full of innuendo; the pace at times is frantic and yet somehow the balance is not right. There are moments which shine, such as radish eating at the table yet the switching between repartee with the audience and the dialogue is not pitched with ease and the lack of subtlety of most gags far too contemporary for turn of the 19th century humour. There is a clash of styles whereby a beautifully ornate first Act set is less true in Act 2. The costumes are a nod to the era but within the acting there are directional choices that blur any real authenticity and performances lean towards a decidedly modern feel.
The song and choreography are fun interludes; here Karoline Gable (Adelina) and Stephan Matthews (Pitois) seem to capture the essence of the style with panache and provide a strong backbone for the rest of the piece.
The show runs until 7 November.
** – 2 Stars